Many Orthodox Christians seek to develop a deeper, more personal life of prayer. As they should, since prayer is an integral part of the Orthodox Faith and our relationship and communion with God. One way to help strengthen your personal prayer life (and sustain it long-term) is to set a special place aside in your home for prayer. Having that holy place established in your home encourages you to go to it each day to pray and deepen your relationship with God. In this post, we show you how to set up a prayer corner in your home, step by step.
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
Table of contents
- What is a prayer corner?
- Selecting a prayer space
- Getting icons for your prayer corner
- Other items for your prayer corner
- Side note: Disposing of old or damaged icons
What is a prayer corner?
In Orthodox Christian homes, the prayer corner is the physical place reserved for personal and family prayer. In Orthodox countries, the faithful call it the front corner, the beautiful corner, the holy corner, the icon corner, God’s place, or the kiot. Whatever its name, this place is the spiritual heart of the home. It should serve as a constant reminder to pray. It should be a sanctuary for you and your loved ones, a place where you can rest and renew yourselves as you live in this world. And perhaps most importantly, it should connect you with your spouse, children, and the even greater family of Saints who have gone before you, who all stand with you in worship of God.
Selecting a prayer space
The first thing you should do when setting up an icon corner is select an ideal space in your house or apartment. Your prayer corner can be anywhere in your home, but ideally, it should be somewhere easily accessible, quiet, and oriented eastward. Depending on your situation, this might present a challenge. But just do the best you can!
First, find an accessible place, so that you feel encouraged to actually go to it and pray. Second, make sure the space is quiet. If someone in the family wants to go to the corner to pray alone, they should be able to do so without distractions. That means not having the prayer corner in a high-traffic area of the home, like the living room or dining area. Lastly, if possible, you should orient your prayer corner toward the East, just like our churches. In a way, our homes are little churches, and the prayer corner is our altar. So it makes sense that we would we try to model our little churches after the larger church.
Options for small living spaces
Not everyone has a spare room they can use for prayer, or even a closet, for that matter. If you find yourself in a small living space with limited options, here are some suggestions for where you can set up your prayer corner:
- Set up some hanging shelves in the corner of your bedroom or living area
- Use a privacy screen or collapsible room divider to create a separate space
- Lean icons against the wall and use your desk, dresser, or bedside table as the altar table
- Use a bookcase or wall nook
Whatever you can do within your circumstances will be acceptable to God. In even rarer cases, you might not have any room at all. In that case, you may need to locate a quiet space outside that you can go to pray. Perhaps you can visit a nearby Orthodox church. You could also consider taking your prayer materials with you outside to a secluded place, like a hiking path at the local park.
Getting icons for your prayer corner
Now that you have chosen a space, the next step to setting up your prayer corner is getting the necessary materials, from holy icons and prayer books to incense and vigil lamps. Each of these items serves a particular purpose in prayer, so take care when selecting them and adding them to your sacred space. First, let’s focus on holy icons.
1. Selecting icons
For Orthodox Christians, an icon is not just a picture. It is a sacred image, outside the realm of ordinary reality. It serves as a window from our world into the world above, God’s revelation in depicted form and color. Icons are not simply family relics we pass on from generation to generation, but holy things that unite the family during communal prayer, which can only be achieved through mutual forgiveness and love. We should not confuse icons with ordinary daily life, because they are intended only for prayer and communion with God. Therefore, we should take great care when selecting icons for our prayer corner.
But what kinds of icons should you get? Are there certain ones you are required to have? And beyond that, what other ones should you consider? (Note that you don’t need to get every single icon in your space before you can start using the space for prayer. As long as you have an icon of Christ to begin, you can obtain the others one at a time as your budget and space allows.)
The following are “must have’s” for every Orthodox prayer corner, because they bear witness to the Incarnation of God and the salvation of mankind:
- An icon of the Lord Jesus Christ, always to the right of the center
- A cross – handheld, mounting, or standing – in the center
- An icon of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, always to the left of the center
The exact placement of the icons and the cross in the prayer corner varies among Orthodox Christians and their preferences. So long as the cross occupies the central position, and the icons of Christ and the Theotokos are to the right and left respectively: that is what is most important.
If you have room (and available funds) for more icons in your prayer corner, you can add as many to your space as you like. We recommend only choosing icons that are special to you. Having more icons does not make you more holy! Quality rather than quantity is the goal. If you are looking to obtain more icons, here are some suggestions:
- Icons of patron saints. At baptism, each Orthodox Christian receives a saint’s name and maintains a special relationship with that saint throughout his life. We call this saint a patron. Because we ask our patron saints to intercede for us regularly, it makes sense to have them in our icon corners. If you have a spouse or children, consider having icons of their patron saints as well. Not sure who yours is? Check out our article on how to choose a patron saint.
- Icons of the feast days. Throughout the Church year, we celebrate many glorious feast days, which commemorate major events in the lives of our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Mother. These make a beautiful addition to any prayer space, as they keep the feast and its significance on your mind as you pray.
- Icons of local saints. Ask your priest about local saints or saints that are special within your diocese. For example, if you attend a Russian Orthodox church, an icon of Saint Nicholas might be perfect for your prayer space, because he is especially beloved in that tradition. Alternatively, if you attend an Antiochian parish, you may consider an icon of Saint Ignatius or Saint Raphael of Brooklyn.
Ultimately, selecting icons is up to the individual. If you find yourself at a loss, speak with your priest! He would be more than happy to talk with you and help you decide which icons would best help you cultivate a strong prayer life.
2. Purchasing icons
When you’re looking to purchase an icon, the first place you should look is your local Orthodox parish. They may have a bookstore (like we do at St. John’s) that sells some icons and other prayer corner materials. If your parish does not have a bookstore, there are many reputable online shops that sell Orthodox icons.
3. Having icons blessed
Once you receive your icons, ask your priest to bless them for you before you put them into your prayer corner. He will say special prayers over the icons and bless them with holy water. Some priests will also set the icons on the altar for the duration of the Divine Liturgy, allowing the icons to participate in the worship with the faithful and stand in the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.
When taking your icons home, remember to face the icons inward rather than stacking them on top of one another.
4. Arranging your icons
Now that your icons have been blessed and taken home, the next step is to arrange them. In personal prayer corners, we only have a couple guidelines you should follow when deciding how to set up your icons in your prayer space:
- Christ on the right, Mary on the left. As we mentioned earlier, make sure Christ’s icon sits on the right side of the arrangement. Then, place the Virgin Mary’s icon opposite His, on the left side. If you can, place a cross between them.
- Remember the principle of hierarchy. Take care not to place an icon of a local saint or patron saint in a more prominent place than the icon of Christ, the Theotokos, the Apostles, or the Holy Trinity. If you have questions about how to do this with limited space, speak with your priest.
- Keep everything symmetrical. This may sound silly, but is actually quite intuitive. When icons are hung without a sense of symmetry or well-thought-out arrangement, you focus more on the asymmetry. You desire to change the arrangement again and again, because something just doesn’t look right. And this distracts you from prayer.
Other items for your prayer corner
Once you arrange your icons, you have just one more step to set up your own prayer corner. You need items for your “altar table”. Following the liturgical practices of the ancient Christian Church, we make use of the following in prayer:
A source of light
In front of the icons, a source of light should perpetually burn. Or at the very least, it should burn whenever you are present in the space to pray. This light represents Christ, who is the Light of the world.
Some families use beeswax candles that burn in a small bowl filled with sand. Others use small votive candles or a vigil lamp. Traditionally, most Orthodox Christians burn an olive oil lamp before the icons in their prayer corner. These traditional oil lamps require a significant amount of attention, which directs our thoughts to God several times a day when we must trim the wick and refill the lamp with oil.
Sometimes, due to a lease or rental agreement, you may not be legally allowed to burn candles or oil lamps in your home. If this is the case, speak with your priest. Generally, in rare circumstances like these, it is okay to use an electric light or fake candle.
Using an oil lamp
You can find Orthodox oil lamps for icon corners in many places online, including Amazon. Some can stand on their own, while others can be mounted onto the wall. Choose whatever makes sense for your home and your family. Should you choose to use an oil lamp in your prayer corner, here are a few tips:
- Choose a large enough glass to allow the oil to last you at least 10-12 hours.
- Leave your olive oil out in the open and allow it to age. Aged / rancid oil burns best in the lamps.
- Put some red wine in the bottom of the oil reservoir before adding the oil, and before lighting. This allows the wick to snuff itself after the oil burns out.
- You can purchase premade wicks, but if you choose to make your own, use plain cotton string (not coated or waxed) 1 foot long of about 6 ply. For a brighter, cleaner flame, soak the string in vinegar and allow it to thoroughly dry before lighting.
- The flame should burn steadily, not flickering. The Fathers of Mount Athos call this low flame apathes, which means passionless.
- Before relighting your lamp, remove excess carbon from the wick with a cloth or towel. Then twist the string to shape the wick into a point.
- Clean your glass periodically (at least once or twice a month), and replace the oil every couple weeks.
During Vespers, we pray, “Let my prayer arise, in Thy sight as incense, and the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” We use incense constantly during worship in the Orthodox Church, as the Hebrews did before us (Exodus 30:1-10). Therefore, we also use it for private prayer with our family. Soon enough, you will begin to associate the smell of the incense with the Church and with the practice of prayer. And that beautiful smell will call you back to that liturgical world of praise and worship.
You can purchase incense and a censer from most parish bookstores, from Ancient Faith, or from Amazon. Some smoke detectors may not cooperate very well with incense. So do take care when burning incense for the first time in your home. If the smoke detector proves to be an issue, there are smokeless incense burners you can purchase online.
Lighting your incense burner
Most incense burners are made of brass. Before doing anything with your charcoal or incense, first put a small amount of sand or fine dirt inside the censer. This helps create insulation. Next, you will need a small piece of charcoal. If you have the standard larger sized Church charcoal, you can break the tablet into quarters and only light one piece. This type of charcoal has a very lively starter, so simply holding a lit match or butane lighter to the side of the piece is usually sufficient.
Once the charcoal is red hot and ashy (this only takes a couple minutes), you can then put in one grain of incense. If you use too many grains at a time, you could produce too much smoke and set off your smoke detector!
Be careful not to burn yourself. The censer will get hot. If you want to pick up the censer and move about the house, you should get a censer that has a wooden handle. Alternatively, you can use a hot pad or wrap the handle with twine or something that will insulate it.
After the charcoal completely burns down to ash, it is not necessary to clean the censer. Simply tamp the ash down and the censer will be ready to use again. Remove some of the old ash when the censer is completely full. (Throw it into the garden—since it was used in prayer, it is, by definition, “blessed.”)
Prayer books and lists
Additionally, you should have prayer books and prayer lists in your corner. These aid us in knowing what to say and who to pray for. Many prayer books include daily prayers (morning, midday, and evening), as well as prayers for certain circumstances, like sickness, expecting a child, preparing for Holy Communion, etc. There are also prayer books for specific prayers, such as the Akathist Hymn, and prayers written by various saints, which can add beautiful depth to your prayer life. You should also keep your Orthodox Study Bible in your corner, so you can read Scripture together in your worship space.
Some other devotional materials you should consider keeping in this space are:
- A Psalter
- The Horologion
- A calendar with readings and commemorations
- Building a Habit of Prayer (pamphlet)
- God and You: Person to Person (by Fr. Anthony Coniaris)
- Beginning to Pray (Met. Anthony Bloom)
- The Art of Prayer
Whenever you receive anything that has been blessed in the Church, keep these things in your prayer corner. Some holy objects you might put here:
- Palm crosses and pussy willow branches
- Holy water
- Holy Oil
- Fresh flowers
- Blessed candles, flour, etc.
- Paschal eggs
- A piece of the Vasilopita (feast of St. Basil)
- Your marriage crowns and candles
- Baptismal candles
If you choose to keep any perishable items in your icon corner, you should either eat them, distribute them to the birds, or burn them once you need to dispose of them.
Side note: Disposing of old or damaged icons
If one or more of your icons have deteriorated with age or have become damaged to the point that they are no longer able to fulfill their purpose in prayer, you must take care to dispose of them in the proper manner. Under no circumstances should any icon or other holy object simply be thrown away. We should always treat holy items with veneration and reverence.
To properly dispose of an icon, take it to your church to have it burned in the church furnace. If your parish does not have a furnace, ask the priest if he, or another trusted member of the parish, could burn it for you. If you are able to burn it yourself, take care to bury the ashes in a place they will not be disturbed, like a cemetery or under a tree in the garden.
Congratulations! You now know how to set up your own prayer corner. First, you need to choose a space. Next, get an icon of Christ (at least), the Theotokos, and other beloved saints and feast days. Then, gather some candles, incense, prayer books, and a few other items to enrich your prayer space. What better time than now to revitalize the prayer life in your home?
Read More: Keeping the Orthodox Faith Alive at Home