Veneration and the Heart

Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 19 September 2022

No doubt, reaching for words where few exist, the Seventh Ecumenical Council made a careful distinction between “worship” (latria) and “honor” (proskynesis or dulia). Latria, it is said, has the character of sacrifice and is due to God alone. English, perhaps among the least precise of all languages, has used the word “worship” for both concepts. Thus, certain positions within the state are addressed as “your worship.” The old English service of Holy Matrimony has the groom saying to his bride, “With my body I do thee worship.” Modern ears, formed and shaped by a Protestantizing culture, recoil when the Orthodox say, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!”

Ours is a culture formed and shaped by the ideologies of democratic notions. It has become a national habit to hate politicians and any in authority if we disagree with their politics. St. Paul said, “Give honor to whom honor is due.” Generally, we withold honor according to our moral whims, largely disregarding the notion that any mere “office” carries with it a level of respect and regard. Of course, criticizing leaders is as old as leadership itself.

My thoughts are not about our political life, but the life of the heart. There is a right instinct in the teaching of the Church regarding worship and veneration. Worship (that which belongs to God alone) is utterly essential for our well-being. That we are – inherently includes that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” In the same manner, our well-being requires the presence of veneration. It is an acknolwedgement of the structure and shape of the universe. Mathematicians cannot ignore first principles, even as they perform the most subtle and speculative calculations.

Our cultural history has largely made us tone-deaf to any hierarchical structure in the world around us. Indeed, I think some are deeply troubled at the thought that God Himself is somehow greater than we are.

It is in light of such realities that I have come to see the veneration of saints, and of relics, and the honor given to hierarchs and holy things, to be essential for the well-being and healing of the human heart. The spiritual disease that afflicts us, can primarily be described as a lack of love. We are imprisoned by our passions so that we are a mass of desires. Passions are disordered desires. It is of great note that the rejection of veneration is a rejection of order – and an invitation to disorder. We simply cannot bear the shame of inequality. Loved equally by God, we resent the excellence of others, as though their excellence came at our expense. Our envy can be heard as we rejoice at the fall of every great one. All of them, “Had it coming.”

Veneration is given to us within the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother.” They are the first persons in our lives to whom we owe gratitude. The commandment also adds this: “…that your days may be long in the land.” Veneration is thus noted as essential for our well-being.

Whether we wish it to be so or not, the universe has structures within it, on the physical level but also on the psychological and spiritual level. Social relations are deeply marked by inequality, creating both occasions for shame and frequent injustice. We make protests of equality as though the only proper structures were straightforwardly horizontal.

It is possible to “kick against the goad,” and rebel against the structures we encounter. It is also possible, and more salutary, to see in them inevitable structures that serve to form and shape the inner life towards the image of its Creator. It is certainly the case that structures within the world create boundaries and ample occasions for shame. It is also the case that we can never remove such obstacles in sufficient amount so as to reshape the universe. Those who begin by suggesting that all animals are equal inevitably begin to say that some are more equal than others. And just like almost everything in the universe this can either be for our destruction or our salvation.

The God who appointed a handful of men to be Apostles, is the same God who warned them against abusing that position by “lording it over” others. Instead, He offered Himself as the pattern. He washed their feet. He came among us as a servant. He did not, however, come among us as an equalizing bulldozer. Our refusal to acknowledge the “uneven” character of creation is also a turning away from what it is within us under the false notion that the problem is outside us.

Veneration is a movement of love. The rejection of veneration is a movement of management (that always fails).

St. Paul’s simple admonition, “Give honor to whom honor is due,” is of a piece with the self-emptying love of Christ.

In my years as a High Anglican, I held, theologically, that the veneration of saints was a good and permissible thing (yes, I know that violates the 39 Articles – they were not binding in America). However, the nature of Western liturgical piety (even in Catholic practice) generally has very little opportunity, outside of private devotions, for the veneration of saints or relics. Orthodox liturgical practice, I discovered, is full of acts of veneration. We do not simply paint icons, we honor them, and do so as an integral part of the liturgical service. You do not enter the Church and ignore the icons.

Thus, what had once been an approved idea in my life became a steady practice. And it was only in that practice that the truth of the matter became clear. The icons taught me what I had not known: how to give honor where honor is due.

I discovered in my marriage, for example, that I was not only to love my wife, but to hold her in veneration, to honor her (the traditional Western marriage service has always contained an oath to “love, honor, etc.” I remember in our early Orthodox years saying to my wife: “It might sound silly, but when I pass you in the hall or kitchen, I have this instinct to bow and cross myself.” It’s not the normative form of showing honor in a marriage – but my heart was only just beginning to learn that mystery.

In our culture, love has often been reduced – even abused in its over-definition. Almost totally lacking, however, is a practice of honor. I recall a retired colonel (WWII) in my first Anglican parish. He had a deep sense of honor and held matters of the Church in a regard that seemed rare. I enjoyed being with him. I trusted him. On reflection, I can see that he learned honor in the same manner as the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed. The military of his day carried a deep culture of honor.

I believe that we cannot rightly perceive the world around us until we gain a heart-knowledge that grasps the practice of veneration. It is also a practice than can only be voluntary. It has the capacity to reveal hidden wonders. Its absence has the capacity for great swathes of misery.

The world around us is sacrament and symbol. It means that anything and everything can serve to reveal God to us, and to reveal ourselves to us, as well. It is, however, a world that only gives itself to us in love. We cannot see what we do not love and honor.

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