The Hope That Defies All: On Icons, Saints, and the Distinction Between Worship and Veneration

But since some find fault with us for worshipping and honoring the image of our Saviour and that of our Lady, and those, too, of the rest of the saints and servants of Christ, let them remember that in the beginning God created man after His own image. On what grounds, then, do we show reverence to each other unless because we are made after God’s image? For as Basil, that much-versed expounder of divine things, says, the honor given to the image passes over to the prototype.

— St. John of Damascus (AD 676-749)

One of my Orthodox acquaintances writes on the subject of the veneration of Christ and the Saints through icons:

I had difficulty with the concept as a new convert. But one day, while dusting, I picked up a photo of my dear, much-loved departed grandmother, and without even thinking, kissed her on the cheek and, gazing into her kind, humble eyes, exclaimed, “I love you so much, Grandmom!”

In a very shocking instant, I realized that my true feelings of love were what had prompted my actions, without any brain/decision-making activity involved, and I suddenly realized she was very much alive, just on the other side of the veil of this life, and that my love was somehow transmitted to her, through the grace of God.

I could feel her love streaming toward me as well, however that works. I don’t have a doctrine memorized, but today, I feel love streaming toward me from photos of my departed parents and grandparents, as well as from various icons…it’s simply incredible, and not even worth trying to explain to those who doubt. They’ll have to find out for themselves – it’s a very visceral experience. Not just a doctrine, or concept.

This reminds me of the adage I have heard from so many Orthodox clergy and friends over the years: True theology must be lived. When one experiences for oneself the love toward a departed family member or friend, and feels how real and alive they truly are– alive but transfigured, alive but reposed, made truly alive in Christ — one realizes exactly why we venerate and honour the Saints through their icons.

How we extend our love to those “beyond the veil” — and come to realize how illusory and thin the veil really is! — is mirrored in how we love and venerate Christ and His Saints, especially His Mother, through the icons in our homes and churches. My paternal grandmother Patricia Hunter reposed in March, and, amazingly, I have felt no sense of loss in her passing, only joy that she is with Christ and has the promise of eternal life in the Resurrection! As my friend says, that joy is “truly glorious”, for it is the hope that defies all things! The light and joy of the Resurrection transfigures all.

My godmother, who is widowed, has described a similar awareness of the other world and how it is really very much here among us. It is something which, truly, only we Orthodox have preserved, in our prayers, our liturgical life (replete with such rich typology and hymnography) and our private devotions. It is a great blessing and comfort to have this connection to the other world; I am a twin (my brother Sean passed away shortly after birth), and an Orthodox priest told me “he is your guardian angel”. In this way, I have felt his presence throughout my life.

One of the local monks in my town, a hierodeacon who is very studious and well-versed in theology and patristics, commented as follows, on the all-important, natural distinction between the worship we give to God alone and the veneration we give to the Saints:

If you look up the Greek word “proskynesis” (ie towards-knee-ing, ie “knee-bending-towards”), translated into classical, old school English as “worth-ship” (as in addressing an English Judge as “Your Worship/Worth-ship”), then it is clear in both Biblical Greek AND classical, Old School English that the old school usage of the English term “worth-ship/worship” means giving to the object the respect that it is appropriately worth, bending the knee in respect, if to God, then as to God (for of divine worth, bending the knee to the Divine) or as to creature (for of lesser worth, as a bending the knee to a King or Queen, or Sarah bending the knee to Abraham).

In other words, learn to read a text the way it was meant, not simply by distorting it through an only modern, now changed word usage.

We respect God with Latreia (the kind of respect due to God alone). We respect other things with Doulia (the various kinds of respect appropriate to the various creaturely persons or sacred things, e.g. bending the knee “towards thy Holy Temple”).

Entering into the mind and the heart of the Faith

“The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” – St. John of Damascus (675-749)

Since before I can remember, I have always been passionately interested in the study and history of world faiths and religious traditions. The shelves of my amateur ‘library’ in my bedroom at my family home are filled with books on ancient, early modern and modern European, Middle Eastern, American, Chinese, Japanese and Indian history, and books detailing the beliefs and histories of different world religions and philosophies, especially Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.


(Not my actual library.)

When I was home in New York over this past Thanksgiving break, I took what I intended to be only a few minutes and ended up losing myself for hours pouring over dozens of these magnificent books which marked my intellectual growth and absorption of knowledge as a child and teenager. It was a beautiful experience, transporting me back to the very pages which opened my mind, like a window, to the peoples, beliefs and practices of times ancient, medieval, and more recent.

As I looked through several books on Christianity and the history of Rome, Tsarist Russia and the Byzantine Empire, I became absorbed in the pages where my exposure to the teachings, spiritual life, and beautiful liturgy and aesthetics of Orthodoxy first began at a very young age: coffee table books such as Brian Moynahan’s The Russian Century or Rick Smolan’s A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, heavy art history books from the Smithsonian and the Hermitage about St. Petersburg and Moscows palaces, churches, convents and monasteries. All of these books which marked my entry into Orthodoxy, at least intellectually and in my imagination, were gifts from my grandparents, one of my father’s colleagues, and one of my uncles who had traveled to Russia.


These books transported me to two very different places: the art history books and photographic histories ushered me to a magnificent bygone world of lavish Courts, opulent palaces, solemn liturgies, cozy-looking villages and beautiful monasteries perched on lakes and the edge of great rivers, while the books on twentieth century Russian and Soviet history made me aware- often through their wordless, graphic images – of the almost unspeakable horrors which millions of peoples of Eastern Europe endured in the past century. It seemed incredible to me that Orthodoxy had somehow managed to survive at all under an unimaginably cruel, repressive and totalitarian regime dedicated to the cause of militant atheism and the abolition of all religion, considered superstition incompatible with the basic principles of revolutionary socialism and Marxist-Leninism.

Years later, I would learn of just how savage the persecution of Orthodox Christians and Eastern-rite Catholics had been under the Soviet period, especially  during the first years under Lenin, and then Stalin’s dictatorship prior to the Nazi invasion of the USSR and the Khrushchev years. A regime which dynamited ancient cathedrals, churches and lavras, sent spies to monitor priests and their congregations, and which first symbolically lined up icons and sentenced them to death, then followed with hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, monks, and hierarchs, and untold millions of faithful laity.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in Moscow in 1839 in memory of Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon. Stalin ordered the Cathedral's demolition in December 1931, and he proposed to build a " Palace of Soviets " on the ground of the demolished Cathedral. Instead the site became host of the world's largest public swimming pool.  The rebuilt Cathedral was completed in 1997 following exact specifications to ensure its obedience to the original building. It stands now as a symbol of the endurance and triumph of Orthodoxy over the Soviet regime which sought to destroy it.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in Moscow in 1839 in memory of Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon. Stalin ordered the Cathedral’s demolition in December 1931, and he proposed to build a “Palace of Soviets ” on the ground of the demolished Cathedral. Instead the site became host to the world’s largest public swimming pool.

This exposure, both to the beauty and richness of Orthodoxy, and the incredible suffering of Eastern Christians in the past century, deeply touched something in me long before I ever worshiped in an Orthodox temple, finding myself immersed in the timeless grace and ethereal majesty of the Divine Liturgy. I felt an inexplicable connection to the history of the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian people, and wondered what it was about their faith that could have so threatened or outraged the Soviets that they attempted to completely eradicate it from the earth. How could anyone endure what so many Orthodox Christians had endured, how could people hold onto their faith when millions of their fellow believers went to their death for it?

Christ the Savior Cathedral

After the end of the Soviet Union, the rebuilt Cathedral was completed in 1997  following exact specifications to ensure its obedience to the original building structural design. Once again a major feature of the Moscow skyline, it stands now as a symbol of the endurance and triumph of Russian Orthodoxy over the Soviet regime which sought to destroy it.

After centuries of existing as the only official State faith of the Russian tsars (a position which enabled the Russian Church to produce some of Christianity’s most eloquent and brilliant theologians and holiest saints, but which also led to institutional corruption, entrenched political factions, and the abuse of the basic freedoms of non-Orthodox religious minorities, especially Jews), how then did the Russian Church endure a complete reversal of fortune when it became the prime target of a militantly atheist communist State committed to its destruction?

Because of my intellectual introduction to Orthodox history and my familiarity with the twentieth century traumas to so many of the Orthodox peoples (Greek, Serbian, Georgian, Russian and Ukrainian especially), when I first experienced the Byzantine Liturgy, while I was astounded to have found myself having stepped into what seemed like an ancient royal court or an entirely new world, the heavenly realm itself, I still felt inexplicably at home. Amid the chanting of the ancient psalms, the ethereal singing of the choir, the censing of the church, her beautiful, expressive icons, and her worshipers, I became absorbed in not just the rich aesthetic smells and sounds and sights of the worship- the vestments of the priests, chanting, the bows and prostrations, and heartfelt prayer litanies- but I became aware of a grace, the presence of God, which was stronger than anything I had ever before encountered.


In my spiritual journey, I had visited many different Protestant churches, attended different Catholic parishes, and also read widely on non-Christian faiths and attended several of their services and meditations. But when I encountered Orthodoxy, stepping into the light of the Liturgy’s eternal banquet, I experienced a kind of awe-inspiring awakening which confirmed not only God’s existence and power, but His unspeakable, transcendent majesty and timelessness, and His deep concern for me and all the world.

I realized the reality that worshiping the Trinity which created us should be the core purpose for our existence. For, if there is truly a God who created all that is, if we truly believe that, and if He loved us so much that He chose to become incarnate so that we might enter into mystical union with Him through the divinization of our very being, then how can we not make Him the center of our lives? By extension, how can we be Christians unless we love every person on this earth as a unique creation made in His image?