A Remark on Candles, Incense, and Crossing Self

Recently a young man who frequently visits our parish asked why we light candles during services. He didn’t mean the altar candles, but many people purchase candles and light them near the icons of Christ or the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary, from the Greek literally Birthgiver of God). The short answer is that a candle it to represent, on our behalf, the light of Christ. This is however, while technically correct, not really the answer. Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) Christians in their worship practice do a lot of things mainline Protestants have either quit doing because they don’t remember that Christians did these things from the first century or have rejected them. Things like prostrations, metanias (bowing at the waist), kissing icons, burning candles and incense, crossing oneself, kneeling, standing to pray, using a prayer rope, and so on are the sorts of things that have been rejected.

Early protestants rejected these things, in the most part arguing that our faith is in our mind, these things are a distraction from “true” worship. Many were stripped of artwork and icons, their services pared down and minimized (repetitions removed). I think the mistake here is forgetting that we embodied. Repetition and the act of doing things physically to connect our bodies motion to our minds thoughts is an important tool to learn a thing better.

Here is an example from my recent swimming experience. First some background, a little over 3 years ago I started swimming regularly for exercise. I’ve been improving a lot, last spring and this fall I had lessons with some of the local age group competitive swim coaches. This winter I joined US masters swimming and have now participated in 2 races and am working hard for my last of the season in April. And here’s the point that connects this to prior two paragraphs. After my first meet, for my primary event I identified two mistakes I’d made that I wanted to work on, to correct. One of them was my turns. I needed to improve my “breath control” to hold the underwater part after the turn fully even on the 7th turn of the 200. So I worked on that every day in practice with variety of drills. The second problem I had was that I “went out” too fast in the first two lengths, and couldn’t hold the tempo/speed I wanted to sustain for the last lengths. To work on this I spent a lot of time in visualizations. Fixing the four 50s, the 8 25s of my 200 in my mind rehearsing how it would go and how I would take it easy and smooth the first two lengths. The 2nd meet was fairly successful. I dropped 4 seconds from my earlier 200 time, but … while my turns were much much improved … I still was too fast in the first 50. My mental only exercise didn’t do very well at all in the heat of the moment to calm myself and hold to what I had rehearsed in my mind.

We are not bodiless. We need to practice with our bodies and minds working together, not just with our minds. Those things noted above, done in worship that are doing exactly that, all involve motion and intent.

So the lesson is, try crossing ¬†yourself when you mention the trinity in worship or when you hear something that connects with you personally … ¬†it will help make you a better swimmer. uhm, wait. That’s not right but you know what I mean.

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