May Lay People Cense at Home?

The book of the prophet Malachi says, For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts (Malachi 1:11). Does this prophecy also apply to the houses of ordinary believers, to the house church? May lay people do censing on their own?

Why would anyone want to cense icons and show other signs of awe and respect, such as burning candles and vigil lamps? According to the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, expressed in the dogmatic declaration of the 7th Ecumenical Council, the veneration that we pay to the image of God is passed on to the original, and therefore when we honor the image of Christ, painted with paints and other stuff, it is not the work of human hands that we honor, but the One who is depicted on the icon. The Council commanded us to have images of Christ, the Mother of God, angels and saints everywhere, as well as to honor these sacred objects with respectful worship, kissing, burning candles and incense. Whereas in the church the censing was carried out by priests, Christians of old used to bring a pleasant fragrance to God in their homes on their own, as evidenced by the writings of the Fathers, the numerous lives of the saints, and the rule books of some monasteries. In particular, St. Photios the Metropolitan of Moscow says in his epistle that God-fearing laypeople, both men and women, should cense their own icons, as well as teach their children to do so, notwithstanding their young age, for this is the custom of the Orthodox.

Since ancient times, lay people in Russia have censed holy icons in their homes. When the whole family gathered together, the honor of burning incense usually belonged to the eldest in the family, although any family member, regardless of his or her gender and age, could burn incense before the icons during personal prayers (according to the Epistle of St. Photios of Moscow). Monks also practiced incense burning in their cells during the monastic prayer rule. According to the established custom, laypeople, including monks, do not use the big priestly censer with chains (aka thurible), which appertains to the priestly and deacon ministry, but use a small hand censer with a small handle (See ancient Charters of the Solovki Monastery and the Nil Sorsky Pustyn). Also, they use the more common metal and ceramic censers.

There are no special strict rules governing how lay people must do censing at home, but it is usually done in three ways. 1) A censer or a special tool, colloquially known as a spider and fixed above a vigil lamp, is simply placed on an icon shelf or on a flat surface and the room is filled with fragrance during prayer. 2) A hand censer is filled with incense and brought in front of the icons at the beginning of the prayer, and it may also be carried around the room or the whole house. The prayers Heavenly King, Trisagion, Our Father, the Creed, the Psalms 51 and 91, and the troparia of the feast are usually being read with reverence and humility while walking around the house with the hand censer. 3) While holding a hand censer in your right hand, you make a sign of the cross in front of each sacred thing and then put the censer in your left hand, make a sign of the cross and bow a little. According to the famous liturgist M. N. Skaballanovich, this is how the hand censer was used in ancient times. Traces of such practice have also remained in the divine service, for example, in the cruciform censing of the Holy Table at the exclamation Glory to the Holy Trinity. This cruciform sign was likely made with a hand censer.

To this day, in some remote Orthodox parishes, where priests come only occasionally for the sake of celebrating the Eucharist, the community itself, represented by the most experienced and spiritually advanced individuals, who have a good knowledge of the liturgical tradition, carries out daily and other circles of worship, and also performs censing in the church with the help of the small hand censer (in particular, in the ROCOR). In such situations, the censing is performed at the designated moments, such as Lord I Have Cried at the Vespers, the Magnificat at the end of the Matins, and so on. The censing is performed in strict order, as is appropriate in the temple. First, the Cross and the Gospel on the analogion are censed, then the Royal Door, the icons on the iconostasis on the right and then on the left, and all other icons according to the procedure. In the absence of a priest, the Royal Door and the altar curtain remain closed, and it is strictly forbidden to cense inside the sanctuary. The practice of lay people censing in the church is confirmed by the Typikon of the Holy Mount Athos, where even to this day the censing with a hand censer is performed by unordained altar servers at some points of a service (see the Orthodox Encyclopedia).

Thus, lay people can cense at home and, with the blessing of the church leadership, experienced parishioners can also cense in chapels and churches while conducting lay services if there is no permanent priest in the parish. The benefits of domestic censing can be substantial: the fragrance of incense creates a more prayerful and church-like atmosphere, sanctifies the house, honors the Gospel, the Cross and the holy icons, which is directly prescribed by the 2nd Council of Nicaea (the 7th Ecumenical Council). A Christian learns to spend time at home in a prayerful manner. Of course, censing is not a sine qua non of home prayer. It should in no way turn into a kind of entertainment, where the emphasis shifts from prayer and intercession before God to some external ceremonial aspect of prayer, which will obviously be not only unhelpful but can also be spiritually harmful. Therefore, it is advisable to acquire some competence in prayer and church life before enriching your home prayer to the Lord by using incense. With that said, the burning of incense in front of icons, especially on the days of the great Church holidays, is an ancient pious custom recorded in the sacred tradition, Church history, and lives of the saints; if it brings you some reassurance, makes you happy in the Lord, and helps you to feel festive, if it fuels your love for the church worship, it is worth thanking God and bringing the pure offering of incense in His name.

John Nichiporuk

About the author

John Nichiporuk,
a Bachelor of Theology, specialized in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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