A solid prayer routine is a key part of the Orthodox spiritual life. Part of that routine involves corporate prayer with your parish, while another part involves private prayer in your own home. To help facilitate prayer in the home, every Orthodox Christian should have a special place set aside. We often call this the “icon corner” or the “prayer corner”. In this post, we show you how to set up an icon corner in your home, step by step.
- Selecting a prayer space
- Getting icons for your corner
- Arranging your icons
- Other items for your prayer corner
Selecting a prayer space
The first thing you should do when setting up an icon corner is selecting a space in your house or apartment. Depending on your situation, this may present a challenge for you. For many families, the extra family room or seldom-used dining room works quite well for this. But not everyone has a spare room they can use for prayer, or even a closet, for that matter. So, here are a few suggestions to help you set up a prayer corner if you don’t have that kind of space:
- Set up some hanging shelves in the corner of your bedroom or living area
- Use a privacy screen or other 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 to store icons, prayer books, candles, etc.
Ideally, you should try to select a space that faces East. But if you cannot find a space that faces that direction, don’t worry. Whatever you can do within your circumstances will be acceptable to God. In even rarer cases, you might not have any room at all. If that is your situation, 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 corner
Now that you have chosen a space, the next step to setting up your icon corner is getting some icons. 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 obtaining? (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.)
Every icon corner should begin with icons of Jesus Christ and of the Mother of God, as well as a cross (handheld, mounted, or standing). If you have a mounted or standing cross, position it in the middle, with Christ’s icon always on the right, and Mary’s on the left, just as you see on the iconostasis in every Orthodox church. These holy images are “must-have’s” for every Orthodox prayer corner, because they bear witness to the Incarnation of God and the salvation of humankind.
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. 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 his patron. When setting up your icon corner, make sure to eventually add an icon of your patron saint and the patrons of other members of your family (spouse and children). Because we ask our patron saints to intercede for us regularly, it makes sense to have them in your icon corner with you in prayer.
Icons of the feast days. Throughout the Church calendar year, we celebrate many glorious feast days, which commemorate and present us again to the historic presence of 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. We recommend asking 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 would 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 speak with you and help you decide which icons would best help you cultivate a strong prayer life.
Arranging your icons
Now that you have your icons, 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. For example, 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 icon corner
Once you arrange your icons, you have just one more step to set up your own icon 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:
These can be beeswax candles that burn in a small bowl filled with sand. Alternatively, you can use small votive candles or a vigil lamp. We light candles when we pray as a reminder that Christ is the Light of the world. If you had any candles blessed during the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, you should keep those candles in your icon corner.
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. Therefore, we should also use it for private prayer with our family. You can purchase incense and a censer from most parish bookstores, from Ancient Faith, or from Amazon.
Holy water and oil
Orthodox Christians receive holy water during the Feast of Theophany (the baptism of Christ) and holy oil during the Unction service on Holy Wednesday. We drink holy water and receive Christ’s blessing when we are sick, before a journey, or simply at the beginning of the day with morning prayers. Likewise, we do the same when anointing ourselves with holy oil.
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 a Bible in your corner, so you can read Scripture together in your worship space.
You can also include seasonal items in your icon corner, such as palm branches and pussy willows (Palm Sunday), flowers, paschal eggs, or a piece of the Vasilopita (feast of St. Basil). Some Orthodox couples also keep their marriage crowns in their family prayer space. If you 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.
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. We have just a couple weeks left until the Great Fast begins in preparation for Pascha. What better time than now to revitalize the prayer life in your home?
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