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How to Set Up a Prayer Corner

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: 13 minutes

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 prayer corner 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 selecting 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.

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.)

Essential icons

The following as “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
Example of an Orthodox prayer corner

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.

Additional icons

If you have room (and available funds) for more Orthodox 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 speak with you and help you decide which icons would best help you cultivate a strong prayer life.

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.

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
A small Orthodox prayer corner
Image 1: An Eastern Orthodox icon corner. Note the symmetry of the icon placement, and the presence of other holy objects (i.e. candles and vigil lamps, prayer ropes, blessed palm branches).
  1. 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.

Vigil lamp in an Orthodox icon orner
Standing vigil lamp in an Orthodox prayer corner

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.
  • 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.

Incense

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.

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.

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.

Seasonal Items

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 and candles 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.

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.

Get started!

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?

Read More: How To Maintain A Consistent Prayer Life

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