Suicide: Why the Church Does What it Does

by Fr. John A. Peck

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

The following is an excerpt of a talk on Suicide in Christian History given at the 3rd Annual Orthodox Bioethics Conference held in Daly City, CA and sponsored by the Vicariate for Palestinian/Jordanian Orthodox Christian Communities in the US.

The Orthodox Church has held fast to its canonical position that suicide is unacceptable under any circumstance, indeed even for sufferers of mental illness. This position has never been negotiable and has remained unchanged since the formation of the Church.

We will go through a short history of the Church’s response to suicide, starting with the Holy Scriptures.

Suicides in the Bible

Holy Scripture records eight unambiguous suicides. In the Old Testament, we have the examples of

  • Abimelek (Judges 9:54),
  • Saul (1 Samuel 31:4),
  • Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5),
  • Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23),
  • Zimri (1 Kings 16:18),
  • Ptolemy Macron (II Maccabees 10:13)
  • Razis (II Maccabees 14:43-6)

and in the New Testament,

  • Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:5).

Almost all of them were wicked men.

Samson (Judges 16:30), is considered a special case, as the purpose of his sacrificial death was to destroy the enemies of God’s people, and is not classed as a suicide, and in this he exists as a type of Christ, who offered Himself in a sacrificial death.

While we do not see a pronounced moral condemnation of the acts of the deceased by at least the narrators of these suicide events in Holy Scripture (which is in line with how such events are usually recorded in the Bible), we can at least deduce in the case of Judas Iscariot that the taking of his own life by hanging, was out of a deep sense of despair for how he had betrayed our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Judas, we are told in Matthew 27:3-4,

“repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood’.”

There is a noted silence on the suicide of Judas by New Testament writes, as the idea seems to be that he experienced the natural result of his actions. In Acts 1:25, Peter spoke of Judas who left his apostolic ministry

“to go where he belongs.”

Literally, the verse reads

“to go to his own place.”

“His own place” is hell. If that seems harsh, consider the words of Jesus in John 6:70-71 when he said,

“Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)

He did not literally mean that Judas was a demon, but that Judas was even then (about a year before the crucifixion) acting under Satan’s influence.

This should fill us with a healthy fear and Jesus also tells his disciples, and through them, us,

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

We who are evil!

Other people in Scripture felt deep despair in life.

  • Solomon, in his pursuit of pleasure, reached the point where he “hated life” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).
  • Elijah was so fearful and depressed that he yearned for death (1 Kings 19:4).
  • Jonah was so angry at God that he wished to die (Jonah 4:8).
  • Even the apostle Paul and his missionary companions at one point

“were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8).

So much for the worthless platitude that “God only gives you what you can handle” – well, not according to the Bible!

However, none of these men committed suicide.

  • Solomon learned to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
  • Elijah was comforted by an angel, allowed to rest, and given a new commission.
  • Jonah received admonition and rebuke from God.
  • Paul learned that, although the pressure he faced was beyond his ability to endure, the Lord can bear all things:

“This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

We can also reflect on the martyrs, who willingly gave their life for Christ. Were these accounted as suicides? No, they were not. The Synaxarion (1998) includes saints whose lives came to an abrupt end when they refused to give up their Christian beliefs. For example, female Orthodox Saints of the first four centuries willingly:

  • walked into fires on seeing their brethren thrown into flames (e.g. St Agathonike according to Eusebius’s account, and separately St. Apollonia who endured terrible sufferings to the point of having her teeth extracted);
  • threw themselves from rooftops at the risk of rape (e.g. St Pelagia of Antioch); and
  • threw themselves into rivers to drown, fearing impending rape by drunken soldiers (e.g. St. Domnina and her two daughters Berenice and Prosdoce).

Yet, the intent of the female martyrs had nothing to do with suicide.

These were men and women of faith who when faced with an imminent threat to their lives, acted to glorify God. They did not go out actively seeking to end their misery.

The Church Fathers on Suicide

We have much to gain also in the distinction of the voluntary and involuntary murder as legislated in the canons 22 and 23 in the Synod of Ancyra in 314. Independent of whether a murder was voluntary or involuntary, a period of repentance had to be fulfilled before the one who had committed the crime could partake in sacraments again.

But the difference with a suicide was that no repentance for the act of self-murder could take place because the one who takes their life is instantaneously cut off from the ability to request forgiveness of their sins.

One reason the Church Fathers applied such strict definitions around suicide from the outset of the Church’s formation was because the Greco-Roman world tended both to disparage the body and to endorse suicide in circumstances of severe hardship. The Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Gnostics, for example, all endorsed voluntary death for reasons consistent with each group’s broader ethical vision”.

The Church Fathers, in particular St. John Chrysostom and St.  Augustine of Hippo, are often juxtaposed by western commentators as having diametrically opposing thoughts on the subject of premature death – which is incorrect.

St. John Chrysostom gave full support to female saints who leapt to their deaths instead of allowing themselves to be raped and being defiled.

St. Ambrose of Milan also showed sensitivity toward these exceptional cases (e.g. recounting the death of 12 year old St. Agnes, Concerning Virginity I.2.5-9), as did Saint Jerome (e.g. writing to St. Paula about the martyrdom of Saint Blæsilla in Letters 39.3).

While on the other hand, St. Augustine was adamant that no one should kill themselves, no matter the magnitude of their desperation, but was circumspect in the context of martyrdom. It is worth quoting him in full:

“But, they say, during the time of persecution certain holy women plunged into the water with the intention of being swept away by the waves and drowned, and thus preserve their threatened chastity. Although they quitted life in this way, nevertheless they receive high honor as martyrs in the Church and their feasts are observed with great ceremony. This is a matter on which I dare not pass judgment lightly. For I know not but that the Church was divinely authorized through trustworthy revelations to honor thus the memory of these Christians” (City of God 1.26).

St. Augustine sharply condemns the practice of suicide, emphasizing,

“that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death” (City of God 1.27).

Likewise, St. John Chrysostom also condemns suicide:

“Whereas God punished such men [those who commit suicide] more than murderers, and we all regard them with horror, and justly; for if it is base to destroy others, much more is it to destroy one’s self” (Commentary of St. John Chrysostom on Galatians 1.4).

To theses we can add the author of The Shepherd of Hermes (written between AD 90-150), Saint Justin Martyr (AD ca. 100-ca 160), Saint Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-220), and Lactantius (AD ca. 260-330).

For instance, St. Clement of Alexandria writes,

“He who presents himself before the judgment-seat becomes guilty of his own death. And such is also the case with him who does not avoid persecution, but out of daring presents himself for capture. Such a person…becomes an accomplice in the crime of the persecutor” (The Stromata, or Miscellanies IV.10).

And Lactantius (The Divine Institutes III.18) writes:

“If homicide is wicked because it is the destroyer of a man, he who kills himself is fettered by the same guilt because he kills a man.”

The Fathers used very strong language to describe their beliefs about suicide for good reason (i.e. the highly public and influential deaths of philosophers by suicide was seen as acceptable in the Roman and Greek pagan worlds, but NOT by the Christian fathers!).

He stresses that outside this context of insanity, all that we have historically concerning the church’s life is incompatible with the praxis of suicide.

Thus, we know by the Orthodox Church’s canon law that

1) a person who willingly commits suicide and is not insane has sinned and should not receive a funeral rite (1 John 3.15), and

2) one who commits suicide in the condition of insanity, is able, through economia under the Bishop’s authority, to receive a funeral rite.

In Alaska, for example, where suicides have been not uncommon, during the late 90’s, it became known to Bishop Innocent Gula of blessed memory that any death which could not be easily explained otherwise, was being ruled by default a suicide by law enforcement. BY DEFAULT. When he heard this, he instituted a rule of only withholding funeral rites and memorial services from those deaths which could be proven to be genuine suicides. Not surprisingly, the number of such declared suicide cases plummeted.

Today the role of the priest is expected to be limited to caressing human passions instead of the aim of treating or extinguishing passions. By banning a religious funeral the Holy Fathers, full of love for mankind, ensure the following key matters:

A. They shout out to all Christians with a blatant voice that whoever kills himself has committed a serious sin, and SIN IS SERIOUS. In this way they are mentally supporting someone who is suicidal in a wise, clear and unambiguous manner to repel any such thought, even in cases of serious human difficulties. Have the supposed “philanthropists” of today never contemplated that they justify suicides with intense emotional arguments, becoming unintentional instigators of many future suicides?

B. There is another, more spiritual reason why there should be no funeral service for a suicide. The social contempt for the suicide is a silent prayer to God to have mercy on them. Every humiliation of man before God increases Divine Mercy. Even posthumous humiliations help the soul in its account before God. This is shown in numerous instances in the life of the Church.

We read in The Ladder of St. John Climacus, that in the chapter “On Repentance” the monks whom the author knew and had reached a virtual angelic state, humbly asked that after their death

“they would not even receive a memorial stone for them”,

but they requested their bodies be tossed without any postmortem honors.

St. Ephraim the Syrian asked that he not be buried with honors, and that they not light candles or incense for him, etc, so that God would take pity on him.

It is important to consider the deliberation given to confessors in a chapter entitled “Instruction to the Spiritual Father” in the book Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite. In his discussion of suicide the saint stated:

“Namely, for a person to kill himself, while having a sound intellect, being conquered by despair.”

The qualification, “while having a sound intellect” is critical in understanding the application of canonical penalties and the voluntary or involuntary aspect of the offense.This would also have the effect of easing God’s judgment of such an act. St. Isaac the Syrian, noted,

“Just because the terms ‘wrath,’ ‘anger,’ ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far remove from His true nature.”

Again, quoting the holiest of Syrian Saints,

“Among all God’s actions there is none which is not a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealing with us” (Brock, 1997).

The Holy Fathers on God’s Mercy

St. Ephraim the Syrian wrote,

“Only hope in the manifestation of Thy Grace, O man-befriending Master, consoles me and keeps me from despair. Whether Thou so desirest or not, save me, O all-good Lord, according to Thy great kindness.”

“God’s mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive.” (St. Isaac of Syria quoted by Brock, 1997).

God’s love according to St. Isaac is the driving force of all He has done, is doing. and will ever do. St. Isaac the Syrian noted:

“In love did He [God] bring the world into existence; In love is He going to bring it into that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.”

It is only in the context of understanding God and all His works as love that St. Isaac’s understanding of the end of time becomes comprehensible. St. Isaac wrote:

“Accordingly the kingdom and gehenna [hell] are matters belonging to mercy; they were conceived of in their essence by God as a result of His eternal goodness…That we should further say or think that the matter is not full of love and mingled with compassion would be an opinion laden with blasphemy and an insult to our Lord God.

By saying that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of sufferings, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the Divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational beings which He created through grace; the same is true if we say He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though he were avenging himself.”

With this in mind, St. Isaac’s reference of God being in hell, still trying to draw the demons and those there to love Him, is humanly fathomable. St. Isaac, based on his “mystical union of with the love of God”, would consider the final judgment, as described in the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25: 31-34): the separation of the sheep from the goats to be the state of the soul at death, but a state not final or irreversible. Both demons and sinners would still have the possibility to respond, by God’s eternally enduring, merciful, and loving grace, so

“they will gaze towards God with the desire of insatiable love…”

It is important to reflect on the words of St. James

“…yet mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13

In the Euchologian, which every priest today uses, there are the prayers for the parting of the soul. These are heartbreaking cries of holy ascetics who pray for their body to be despised in order for their soul to find mercy from God.

It is asked that the body of the sinner remain unburied for God to take pity on him. Therefore, it is by love and love alone that the Church does not give a funeral to suicides.

A blessed Athonite elder, Fr. Anthimos Agiannanites, when asked by relatives about a young suicide, if he should be commemorated during the Divine Liturgy (of course a funeral service was out of the question), responded:

“Do not commemorate him during the Liturgy. It is better for his soul. When the All-Merciful sees that we do not honor him, the Same will take pity on him, but when we honor him, He will not have mercy on him.”

There is in the Akathist for the Repose of Those Who Have Fallen Asleep a small prayer which is be prayed for those who have ended their own life.

” Forgive, O Lord, those who have died without repentance. Save those who have committed suicide in the darkness of their mind, that the flame of their sinfulness may be extinguished in the ocean of Thy grace.

Ikos 5 from the Akathist for the Repose of Those Who have Fallen Asleep.

St. Leonid of Optina advised a spiritual child of his grieving over his father’s suicidal death:

Entrust yourself and the fate of your father to the will of the Lord, which is all-wise and omnipotent. Take care through humble-mindedness to strengthen yourself within the bounds of moderate grief. Pray to the all-good Creator, thereby fulfilling the debt of love and filial duty-in the spirit of the virtuous and wise, thus:

Pray simply, without testing [God], placing your heart in the right hand of the Most High. It was not, of course, the will of God that your father come to such a bitter end, but now he is totally under the will of the Mighty One, and, soul and body, he is cast into the fiery furnace, which humbles and exalts, kills and gives life, brings down into hades and raises up [therefrom]. Furthermore, He is so kind, omnipotent and overflowing with love, that the good qualities of all mortals are nothing compared to His most exalted goodness.

For this reason, you must not grieve beyond measure. You say: ‘I love my father, which is why I am sorrowing inconsolably.’ But God, incomparably more than you do, loved and loves him. It is therefore necessary for you to leave the eternal fate of your father to the goodness and loving-kindness of God. And if He deigns to have mercy, who will gainsay Him?

Then St. Leonid advised him to pray this prayer:

“Seek out, O Lord, the perished soul of my father; if possible, have mercy! Thy judgments are unfathomable. Do not account this prayer of mine as a sin. May Thy holy will be done.”

St. Ambrose of Optina also recommended this prayer.

St. Theophan the Recluse also wrote about this:

“The Church does not command [us to pray for suicides]. How then dare its sons and daughters to (offer liturgical) pray(er) [for them]? What is evident here is an attempt to show that we are more merciful than the Church, than God Himself. It is better to limit ourselves to feeling pity for them, entrusting them to the immortal compassion of God, and praying for them in our private prayers, that He deal with them according to His loving-kindness and according to your faith in that loving-kindness.”

Finally, does not the Third Kneeling Prayer which we read recently on Pentecost Sunday pray to the Lord Almighty that he will release those who are held in the bondage of Hell?

“…who also on this all-perfect and saving feast, art graciously pleased to accept prayers for those who are imprisoned in Hell, promising unto us and unto those held in bondage great hope of release from the vileness that doth hinder us and hinder them… We who are living will bless thee, and will pray, and offer unto thee prayers and sacrifices for their souls.”

Again, is there some special mention there that we are excluding suicides from this prayer, or any reason we should believe it?

Private prayers, giving alms on behalf of the suicide, and other acts of love, with the hope that the Lord will have mercy on that poor soul, are not forbidden.

What is forbidden is the composing of liturgical prayers, and remembrances at liturgy for persons who commit suicide.

This is how our fathers respond. For this dead person to not be read over, as we have seen, is the greatest compassion we can offer him.Otherwise, the prayers of the Church prevent Divine Mercy because they are false, self-righteous, and hypocritical towards God.

For the Orthodox Church there is a fine line that cannot be crossed when making proclamations about suicide, before it opens the floodgates to the slippery slope. Yet, canonically, the Church has always known where it stands regarding suicide and the Fathers when consulted accurately have had one voice on the matter. What we are witnessing at present are significant pastoral responses that seek to communicate clearly that the Church is here for those who need it and that God will

“wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4),

no matter if one is struggling with mental illness, physical unwellness, very difficult life situations, or even atheism.

The Wisdom and Mercy of the Church Today

Following the example of the Holy Fathers, such as Ss. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, who integrated the scientific knowledge of their day in establishing monastery hospitals, in our day, the bishops of America, (SCOBA) in a Pastoral letter issued in 1977 took into account what science has learned about those suffering from suicidal thoughts. First they cite an early church canon:

Thus, Canon 14 of Timothy of Alexandria states that liturgical services should be offered,

“if a man having no control of himself lays violent hands on himself or hurls himself to destruction.”

And the patristic interpretation of this teaching states that services should be offered when a suicide victim

“is not of sound mind, whether it be as a result of a demon or of an ailment of some sort” (Question XIV of the 18 Canons of Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria. Pedalion, p. 898).

At end of the Letter they issued the following pastoral guidelines to be granted after appropriate investigation:

The general pastoral recommendation being that a church burial and memorial services could be granted unless there were an absence of significantly diminished capacities.


See the lectures of this Bioethics Conference HERE

Source: Fr John Peck – the Orthodox Church of Tomorrow

The Ancient Western Way of Making the Sign of the Cross

The sign of the cross is a beautiful gesture which reminds the faithful of both the cross of salvation while invoking the Holy Trinity. 

The early Church Fathers attested to the use of the sign of the cross. Tertullian (d. 250) described the exceptional frequency of the sign of the cross being made:

“In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross” (De corona, 30).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) in his Catechetical Lectures stated,

“Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest” (Catecheses, 13).

Even much later, an instruction of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) evidences the traditional practice but also indicates a shift in the Latin Rite practice of the Catholic Church:

“The sign of the cross is made with three fingers, because the signing is done together with the invocation of the Trinity. …This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left).”

Until then, the custom of making the cross from the right to the left shoulder was the common practice for all Christians in both the western and eastern Church.

How do you know that the Orthodox, not the Iconoclasts, preserved the more ancient Christian view of Icons?

For one thing, Iconoclasm would have thrived in Islamic dominated territory… but it didn’t.  The first out break of Iconoclasm began in Moslem territory, though this was not Christians destroying images, but Moslems destroying Christian images (Pelikan, p. 105).  There  is also reason to think that Moslem influence inspired the Iconoclastic Emperors (for one, all of them were from parts of the Empire in which Moslems had made inroads), but the fact of the matter is that the only part of the Church in which Iconoclasm took hold was in those areas in which the Iconoclast Emperors could impose their heresy upon the people.  In all areas of the Church beyond the reach of Byzantine arms, the Church opposed the Iconoclasts and broke communion with them.   One of the most vocal opponents of the Iconoclasts was St. John of Damascus, who lived under Moslem rule, and suffered persecution as a result.  If the Iconoclast view were really the traditional view, we should have expected to see this opinion dominate the Christians living under Moslem rule.  At the very least, we would expect some Iconoclasts to speak out from among these Christians, but in fact, the opposite was true—there were no Iconoclastic voices heard from Moslem dominated lands, despite the obvious advantages such Christians would have had with their Moslem rulers.

Also, prior to the Iconoclastic controversy, we have extensive archeological evidence that Icons were used throughout the Church, and were this a departure from Apostolic Tradition we should expect to find a huge controversy on the subject from the very moment that Icons first came into use, which would have only intensified as their use became more common.   We find, however, nothing of the sort.  In fact, thirty years prior to the Iconoclastic controversy, the Quinisext council established a canon regarding what should be depicted in certain Icons, but hasn’t the faintest hint of any controversy about Icons per se:

“In some of the paintings of the venerable Icons, a lamb is inscribed as being shown or pointed at by the Precursor’s finger, which was taken to be a type of grace, suggesting beforehand through the law the true lamb to us Christ our God.  Therefore, eagerly embracing the old types and shadows as symbols of the truth and preindications handed down to the Church, we prefer the grace, and accept it as the truth in fulfillment of the law.   Since, therefore, that which is perfect even though it be but painted is imprinted in the faces of all, the Lamb who taketh away the sin of the world Christ our God, with respect to His human character, we decree that henceforth he shall be inscribed even in the Icons instead of the ancient lamb: through Him being enabled to comprehend the reason for the humiliation of the God Logos, and in memory of His life in the flesh and of His passion and of His soterial death being led by the hand, as it were, and of the redemption of the world which thence accrues” (Canon LXXXII of the Quinisext Council).

Aside from this, there are many other things about the Iconoclast which show the novelty of their heresy:  they opposed monasticism, despite the fact that it had unquestionably been embraced by the Church for centuries, they were found of robbing monks, taking their land, and forcing them to marry, eat meat, and attend public spectacles (and those who resisted often were the public spectacles), contrary to well established monastic practice.  Even Protestant historians are forced to concede that the holy men and women of the day were supporters of the veneration of Icons, and that the Iconoclasts were a rather immoral and ruthless lot.

“Much has been written, and truly written, of the superiority of the iconoclastic rulers; but when all has been said that can be, the fact still remains, that they were most of them but sorry Christians, and the justice of the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin’s summing up of the matter will not be disputed by any impartial student. He says, “No one will deny that with rarest exceptions, all the religious earnestness, all which constituted the quickening power of a church, was ranged upon the other [i.e. the orthodox] side. Had the Iconoclasts triumphed, when their work showed itself at last in its true colours, it would have proved to be the triumph, not of faith in an invisible God, but of frivolous unbelief in an incarnate Saviour.” (Trench. Mediaeval History, Chap. vii.) The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans H. R. Percival, in NPNF2, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, p. 575, cf. 547f.

One can only be an Iconoclast if they believe that the Church can cease to exist—contrary to the Scriptures—because there is no doubt that the Church rejected Iconoclasm and used Icons from at least as far back as its use of catacombs (which are full of Christian Icons).  This is an option that thoughtful Evangelicals generally reject (see, for example,  A Biblical Guide to Orthodoxy and Heresy, Part Two: Guidlines for Doctrinal Discernment, in the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1990, p. 14, section 3, “The Orthodox Principle”).

For a thorough history of the reception of the Seventh Œcumenical Synod, particularly the mistranslations of many of its decrees in the West, and the resulting misunderstanding of the council on the part of the Franks, see The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans H. R. Percival, in NPNF2, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp. 575-587.


The Reason Orthodox Christians Cross Themselves from Right to Left

Orthodox cross themselves from right to left. first we will describe the mechanics of making the cross, then explain why it is indeed important that we make the sign of the cross correctly.

Placing the cross on oneself

1) We place our thumb and first two fingers together in a point, and our last we fingers flat against our palm. The three fingers together represent the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the two fingers in the palm represent the two natures of Christ.

2) We touch our forehead, then our belly, tracing the vertical part of the cross.

3) From our belly, we bring our hand up to our right shoulder, touching it.

4) We finish placing the cross on ourself by touching our left shoulder.

The act of “Placing the cross on oneself” is a request for a blessing from God. We make if from right to left to mirror the actions of the priest when he blesses us. The priest, looking at the parishioners, blesses from left to right. Therefore, the parishioners, putting on the sign of the cross on themselves, do it from right to left.

Because the Lord separated the sheep from the goats, putting the faithful sheep on His right side, and the goats on the left, the Church always treats the right side as the preferred side. We only cross ourselves with our RIGHT hand. The priest, when blessing a person, first touches or points to their RIGHT side, then their left. Also the censing of the Holy Table in the Altar is always done from the RIGHT side first; censing of the Ikonostasis, the Congregation and of the Church itself always begins with the right side. The priest always gives communion with his RIGHT hand, even if he is left handed. There are other examples of this right side preference.

When a parent makes the sign of the cross over a child, they will cross them from left to right, just as the priest blesses. When they make the sign of the cross over themselves, they would do it, logically, the other way.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that in the Roman Catholic Church, the faithful crossed themselves from right to left, just as the Orthodox do, until the 15th or 16th century. They must explain why they have changed an ancient and apostolic tradition. We cannot answer as to their motivations.

Is it important to cross ourselves a particular way? In a word, YES. We do not have the authority to choose willy-nilly what parts of the Christian Tradition we want to follow. Our fathers, and countless saints crossed themselves from right to left. Ancient icons show Christ or bishops beginning a blessing from right to left. the right side is referred to in a preferential way many times in scripture and our sacred hymns What should we want to change?



The Fathers of the Orthodox Church on Abortion

abortion and the Orthodox Church

The following represent the teaching of the Orthodox Church on abortion from the [early] second century through the fifth century…. Note that penalties, when they are given, are neither civil nor criminal, but ecclesiastical and pastoral (excommunication for the purpose of inducing repentance). Also note that the these quotes deal with both surgical and chemically induced abortion, both pre- and post-quickening.

From the Letter to Diognetus:

(speaking of what distinguishes Christians from pagans) “They marry, as do all others; they beget children but they do not destroy their offspring” (literally, “cast away fetuses”).

From the Didache (ca 70 ad):

“You shall not slay the child by abortions.”

From the Letter of Barnabus:

“You shall not destroy your conceptions before they are brought forth; nor kill them after they are born.”

From St. Clement:

“Those who use abortifacients commit homicide.”

From St. Hipploytus of Rome, “Refutation Of All Heresies,” c. 225 A.D.

“Women who were reputed believers began to resort to drugs for producing sterility. They also girded themselves around, so as to expel what was being conceived. For they did not wish to have a child by either slave or by any common fellow – out of concern for their family and their excessive wealth. See what a great impiety the lawless one has advanced! He teaches adultery and murder at the same time!” 

From Tertullian:

“The mold in the womb may not be destroyed.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage, “Epistle 52 To Cornelius,” c. 251 A.D.

“He [the schismatic Novatian] struck the womb of his wife with his heel and hurried an abortion, thereby causing parricide.” 

From St. Basil the Great:

“The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. The hair-splitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us.”

From St. Augustine:

“Sometimes their sadistic licentiousness goes so far that they procure poison to produce infertility, and when this is of no avail, they find one means or another to destroy the unborn and flush it from the mother’s womb. For they desire to see their offspring perish before it is alive or, if it has already been granted life, they seek to kill it within the mother’s body before it is born.”

From St. Jerome

“Others drink for sterility and commit murder on the human not yet sown. Some when they sense that they have conceived by sin, consider the poisons for abortion, and frequently die themselves along with it, and go to Hell guilty of three crimes: murdering themselves, committing adultery against Christ, and murder against their unborn child.” 

From St. Ambrose of Milan

“The rich women, to avoid dividing the inheritance among many, kill their own fetus in the womb and with murderous juices extinguish in the genital chamber their children.” 

From St. John Chrysostom:

“Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit? Where there are medicines of sterility? Where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gifts of God, and fight with His laws? What is a curse you seek as though it were a blessing. Do you make the anteroom of slaughter? Do you teach the women who are given to you for a procreation of offspring to perpetuate killing?”

“To destroy the fetus ‘is something worse than murder.’ The one who does this ‘does not take away life that has already been born, but prevents it from being born.'” 

Canon XCI:

As for women who furnish drugs for the purpose of procuring abortions, and those who take fetus-killing poisons, they are made subject to penalty for murderers.

Canon II:

“A woman who aborts deliberately is liable to trial as a murderess. This is not a precise assertion of some figurative and inexpressible conception that passes current among us. For here there is involved the queston of providing for the infants to be born, but also for the woman who has plotted against her own self. For in most cases the women die in the course of such operations, But besides this there is to be noted the fact that the destruction of the embryo constitutes another murder…. It behooves us, however, not to extend their confessions to the extreme limit of death, but to admit them at the end of the moderate period of ten years, without specifying a definite time, but adjusting the cure to the manner of penitence.”

Canon XXI:

“Regarding women who become prostitutes and kill their babies, and who make it their business to concoct abortives, the former rule barred them for life from communion, and they are left without resource. But having found a more philanthropic alternative, we have fixed the penalty at ten years, in accordance with the fixed degrees. …”

“As for women who destroy embryos professionally, and those (non-prostitutes) who give or take poisons with the object of aborting babies and dropping them prematurely, we prescribe the rule that they, by economy, be treated up to five years at most.”


Sources:,  Catholic News


The Fathers of the Orthodox Church on Abortion

On Orthodox Spiritual Leaders


by St. Symeon the New Theologian

Plead God with prayers and tears for Him to send you a guide who is dispassionate and holy. At the same time, also study the divine Scriptures by yourself and particularly the practical writings of the Holy Fathers; so that by cross-examining the teachings and works of your teacher and leader with these [writings] you may become able to see and to comprehend [his teachings].

And those teachings that are in agreement with the Scriptures, you should adopt and hold them dear in your mind, while the adulterated and foreign ones you should learn to perceive them as such and to turn them away, in order not to be deceived.

For know this: many deceivers and false teachers have come forth in these days”.

[Practical and Theological Chapters 32, by P. Christou in the Library of Greek Fathers — Philokalia of the Neptic and Ascetic Fathers 3, Patristic Editions Gregory Palamas, Thessalonica, p.242]

Why Must an Orthodox Church have an Iconostasis and a Curtain over the Royal Doors?


by Fr. Andrei Chizhenko

In an Orthodox church there is no thing or action which does not carry meaning of spiritual weight. Even the iconostasis and curtain over the Royal Doors are full-fledged “participants” in the Divine services.

What is the significance of the iconostasis and curtain in the microcosm of an Orthodox church?

The architecture and interior decoration of an Orthodox church is, if it can be so expressed, heaven on earth. It is a model of the spiritual world—of the Heavenly Kingdom—which the Lord opened to us through the holy prophet Moses on Mt. Sinai. Then God commanded to build the Old Testament Tabernacle according to the precise pattern given by Him to Moses, down to the smallest detail. New Testament Orthodox churches have the same arrangement as that of the Old Testament, but with the difference that our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate and completed the work of the salvation of mankind. It is namely from this monumental event that there are changes to New Testament temples in relation to that of the Old Testament.

But there remained an immutable three-part structure to churches. According to the holy prophet Moses it includes the courtyard, the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies. In the New Testament church it is the narthex, nave, and altar.

The narthex and nave themselves symbolize the earthly Church. Any believing Orthodox Christian can be in these parts. The nave correspond to the Old Testament sanctuary. Earlier no one but priests could be found there, but today, because the Lord with His most-pure blood cleansed us all and united us in His Mystery of Baptism, the nave—the New Testament sanctuary—is open to all Orthodox Christians.

The Holy of Holies of the Mosaic Temple corresponds to the altar in the New Testament Church. It symbolizes the Heavenly Kingdom. It is not without reason that it is elevated in relation to the nave and narthex. The very word “altus” in translation from Latin means “high.” The center of the altar is the altar table. It is this throne on which God Himself sits invisibly in the church. It is the main place of the Orthodox temple. Even the clergy, without a special need (such as to celebrate a service) and the necessary liturgical clothing (such as the cassock) must not touch it—it is holy ground—the place of the Lord.

Usually between the altar and the nave there is erected a special wall, adorned with icons, known as the “iconostasis.” It is a compound Greek word formed from the words for “icon” and “to stand.” This partition is not erected, as some incorrectly think, to conceal what the priest is doing in the altar. Of course not. The iconostasis has a quite distinct liturgical and spiritual significance.

The practice of erecting an iconostasis is quite ancient. According to Church Tradition the first to order the closing of the altar by a curtain was the Holy Hierarch Basil the Great in the second half of the fourth century. But even earlier there were well-known partitions between the altar and nave was already a part of the church, for example in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The modern appearance of the iconostasis was basically developed in Church art by the beginning of the fifteenth century.

So, what does the iconostasis mean in the spiritual and liturgical sense?

It itself symbolizes the world of saints and angels—the Heavenly Kingdom, to us not yet fully attainable. It is that place and condition of soul to which we must aspire. The Heavenly Kingdom for us, living on earth, is yet separate and inaccessible. But every Orthodox Christian is obliged to move towards to it and strive with the help of those salvific means which the Church and its Head—Christ—offer us.

The visual separation of the altar from the nave should motivate us to strive in that direction—to the heavenly, and this aspiration is the core of the life of every Orthodox Christian. We believe that the merciful Lord will once open to us the door to Paradise and lead us in, as a loving Father His children…

From another side, the icons of the iconostasis tell us the story of the salvation of mankind by our Lord Jesus Christ. For example, the iconostasis can be single or multi-tiered. On the first tier In the middle of the first tier is the Royal Doors, which is also the place of God. Even the priest doesn’t have the right to pass through them: only in vestments and at strictly specific times of the services. On the right and the left are found the so-called deacon’s doors, through which clergy and altar servers can enter into the altar. They are called “deacon’s” because the deacon leaves the altar through them and returns again during the reciting of special prayers (litanies) through the Royal Doors. On the right of the Royal Doors is hung the icon of the Savior, and on the left of the Most Holy Theotokos, and on the deacon’s doors, as a rule, icons of the holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel—those heavenly deacons of God, or the holy deacons the Proto-Martyr and Archdeacon Stephen and the martyred Lawrence. Rarely there are other icons. Next to the right deacon door is the icon of the parish’s feast.

If there is a second tier on the iconostasis it is known as the “Deesis,” which in translation from Greek means “supplication” or “petition.” In the center of the row is the image of Christ the Pantocrator enthroned, to His right the Most Holy Theotokos in a prayerful pose, and to His left the holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord John, also with prayerfully outstretched arms. Next are icons of various saints also in prayerful poses, turning to the Savior. These can be various saints of the Orthodox Church but most often it’s the Twelve Apostles.

Immediately above the Royal Doors is placed an icon of the Mystical Supper—the first Liturgy, celebrated by God Himself. It is a symbol of the most important ministry of the Church and church—the service of the Holy Eucharist—the Body and Blood of Christ.

If there is a third tier on the iconostasis then on it are placed icons of the Twelve Great Feasts. They symbolize the salvation by Christ of fallen mankind. Less often (only in major cathedrals) are there fourth and fifth rows. In the fourth row are depicted the holy prophets, and in the fifth the forefathers (the Holy Forefathers Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and so on). In the center of the top row of the iconostasis is placed an icon of the Holy Trinity, crowned by the Holy Cross as the main instrument of our salvation.

In the Church the curtain is known by the Greek word “??????????? (katapetasma).” It divides the Royal Doors on the altar side from the holy altar table.

Everything in the Church, including the Royal Doors and curtain, has a strictly defined meaning.

For example, the Royal Doors are, if it may be so expressed, the door of Christ. Therefore on them are often placed the rounded icons of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos and the four holy Evangelists—proclaiming the good news of the God-Man Christ. The opening of the Royal Doors in the services and the priests’ passing through them is a symbol that the Lord is present in the church and blesses those worshiping.

An example:

The beginning of the All-Night Vigil: After the Ninth Hour the Royal Doors are opened and the priest silently censes, then proclaiming before the altar the doxology to the Holy Trinity and the other prescribed prayers, then exiting from the altar through the Royal Doors to cense the entire church, icons, and worshipers. This all symbolizes the beginning of sacred history and the creation of the world and mankind. The priest censing the altar and those at prayer symbolizes that God dwelt in Paradise with man and they directly and visibly communicated with Him. After the censing the Royal Doors are closed, representing the Fall of man and his expulsion from Paradise. The Doors are again opened at the Little Entrance with the censer in Vespers—it is the promise of God to not abandon sinful man, but to send to him His Only-Begotten Son for his salvation.

It is precisely the same at Liturgy. The Royal Doors are opened before the Little Entrance as a symbol of Christ’s beginning to preach, because after that a bit later is read the Epistle and Gospel. The Great Entrance is with the chalice and diskos—the Savior’s going to His suffering on the Cross.

The closing of the curtain before the exclamation

“Let us attend. Holy things are for the holy”

is a symbol of the death of Christ, the placing of His Body in the tomb and the sealing of His tomb with a rock.

As an example, many Great Lenten services are served not only with closed Royal Doors, but with a closed curtain as well. It’s a symbol of man’s expulsion from Paradise, that we must now weep and lament over our sins before the closed entrance to the Heavenly Kingdom.

The opening of the curtain and the Royal Doors during the Paschal service is a symbol of the restoration of the lost communion with God, the victory of Christ over the devil, death and sin, and the opening of the path to the Heavenly Kingdom for every one of us.

It all speaks to us about that in our Orthodox services and in the structure of the churches there is nothing superfluous, but everything is coherent, harmonious and intended to guide Orthodox Christians into the Heavenly realm.



Why Must an Orthodox Church have an Iconostasis and a Curtain over the Royal Doors?

Mental Imagery in Eastern Orthodox Private Devotion

mental imagery

Is mental imagery good or bad in spiritual life? Fr. Sergei answers the question for Orthodox Christians, and anyone else who needs to know, once and for all.

By Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Just as there can be a properly trained voice, there can be a properly trained soul.

—Fr. Alexander Elchaninov

This presentation is based on the research that I undertook for a book titled Imagine That… : Mental Imagery in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Private Devotion, published in paperback in February of 2009 with the blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco.  The work is an analytical comparison of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox attitudes toward mental imagery.  In this presentation, I wish to focus specifically on the Orthodox tradition of prayer.

Eastern Orthodoxy displays a great degree of uniformity in following a path of stillness of thought and silence of mind to achieve the prayer of heart in private devotion.  Saint John Climacus writes in The Ladder (28:19) that

“the beginning of prayer consists in chasing away invading thoughts…”  

The mind is to be freed from all thoughts and images and focused on the words of prayer.  Further in the chapter on prayer, St. John instructs not to accept any sensual images during prayer, lest the mind falls into insanity; and not to gaze upon even necessary and spiritual things.

Unlike Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Tradition does not encourage the use of mental imagery.  In fact, it almost appears to forbid sensory imagination during prayer altogether.  In the words of one of the contemporary Orthodox elders, Abbot Nikon (Vorobyev) (1894-1963),

“that, which sternly, decisively, with threats and imploring is forbidden by the Eastern Fathers—Western ascetics strive to acquire through all efforts and means”.

One of the best summaries of the Orthodox patristic tradition of prayer is contained in the works of Bishop Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) (1807-1867), a nineteenth-century scholar, theologian, and saint.  Having studied the works of both Eastern and Western saints in their original languages, St. Ignatii was also known as a man of prayer, and his writings breathe not only of academic vigor, but of personal practical experience as well.

St. Ignatii certainly acknowledges that there are visions from God which are shown to those

“who are renewed by the Holy Spirit, who put off the old Adam, and put on the New” (Works 2004, 1:86). 

“Thus,” he writes, “the holy Apostle Peter during prayer saw a notable sheet descending from heaven.  Thus, an angel appeared to Cornelius the centurion during prayer.  Thus, when Apostle Paul was praying in the Jerusalem temple, the Lord appeared to him and commanded him to immediately leave Jerusalem…” (1:86) 

But St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) categorically forbids seeking or expecting such “supernatural states”:

The praying mind must be in a fully truthful state.  Imagination, however alluring and well-appearing it may be, being the willful creation of the mind itself, brings the latter out of the state of Divine truth, and leads the mind into a state of self-praise and deception, and this is why it is rejected in prayer.

The mind during prayer must be very carefully kept without any images, rejecting all images, which are drawn in the ability of imagination…  Images, if the mind allows them during prayer, will become an impenetrable curtain, a wall between the mind and God. (1:75)

Saint Isaac of Syria (d. c. 700), a bishop and theologian, writing centuries earlier, conveys a similar warning to those who desire visions, saying that such a person is

“tempted in his mind by the devil who mocks him” (174).

Specifically addressing devotees’ visions of the Lord and the saints, St. Ignatii points out that human imagination can lead to fake sensory experiences, falsely recognized by the person as originating outside of his or her mind:

Guard yourself from imagination, which can make you fancy that you see the Lord Jesus Christ, that you touch and embrace Him.  This is empty play of puffed-up and proud self-opinion!  This is deadly self-praise! (1:33)

If during your prayer there appears to your senses or spontaneously in your mind an image of Christ, or of an Angel, or of any Saint—in other words, any image whatsoever—do not accept this apparition as true in any way, do not pay any attention to it, and do not enter into a conversation with it.  Otherwise, you will surely suffer deceit and most serious damage to your soul, which has happened to many. (1:75-6; see also Philokalia 5:233)

 Imagining the Lord and his saints gives to the mind as if materiality, leads it to the false, prideful opinion of self—leads the soul into a false state, a state of deceptive self-praise. (1:76-7)

In other words, according to St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov), purposefully creating images in one’s mind, and even accepting those appearing spontaneously, is not only dangerous spiritually, but can also lead to the damage of the soul, or psychological problems,

“which,” he says, “has happened to many.” 

Undoubtedly, here St. Ignatii refers to the spirituality of some Western saints:

“Do not play with your salvation, do not.  Take up the reading of the New Testament and the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church, but not of Teresa and other Western crazies…”

  But cases of mental disorders facilitated by improper prayer or state of mind are also known in various Orthodox literature, especially paterikons

Saint Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022), writing in the late tenth to early eleventh centuries, warns against the method of prayer later used by St. Ignatius of Loyola and other Western saints as potentially leading to mental problems:

The specific features of this… type of prayer are such: when one, standing at prayer and lifting up his hands, and eyes, and mind to heaven, imagines in his mind divine councils, the heavenly goodness, the ranks of angels, and the dwellings of the saints; in other words, all that he has heard from the Divine Scriptures, he collects into his mind…  But during this type of prayer, little-by-little, [he] starts to puff-up in his heart, not understanding this himself; it seems to him that what he is doing is from God’s grace [given] for his comfort, and he asks God to let him always be in this state.  But this is a sign of great deception…  Such a person, [if he practices this type of prayer in seclusion] will hardly be able to stay sane.  But, even if it so happens that he does not go insane, he, nonetheless, will not be able to acquire virtues… (Philokalia 5:463-4)

Commenting on this passage, St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) calls imaginative prayer “most dangerous”:

The most dangerous of the incorrect types of prayer consists of the person creating imaginary pictures, seemingly borrowing them from the Holy Scripture, but in reality—from his own state of fall and self-pride; and with these pictures he flatters his own self-opinion, his fall, his sinfulness, deceives himself. Obviously, everything which is created by the imagination of our fallen nature, does not exist in reality, is make-belief and false…  The one who imagines, with the first step on the path of prayer leaves the area of truth and enters the area of deceit, passions, sin, Satan. (Works 1:160-1)

The teaching of St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) continues the tradition of prayer carried by the Fathers of the Eastern Church.  Much of this tradition was compiled into a large work titled Philokalia (Gr. “love of the good”), which contains the writings of the Eastern Fathers from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries.  This work, a staple of Orthodox spirituality and an unquestionable Orthodox authority on prayer, forbids the use of mental imagery in no uncertain terms.  Saint Macarius of Egypt (A.D. 300-391), for example, writes that Satan appears to those seeking visions as an angel of light to foster in them a proud opinion of themselves as visionaries of the divine, and by this self-pride to lead them to destruction (see 630).  Saint Nilus of Sinai (died c. 430) a disciple of Saint John Chrysostom, teaches that the mind must be

“deaf and dumb during prayer” (Philokalia 2:208). 

“When you pray,” he writes, “do not imagine God in any form and do not allow your mind to form any image…” (2:215) 

St. Nilus also warns to not even desire to see any images or visions:

“Do not desire to see any face or image during prayer.  Do not desire to see Angels, or Powers, or Christ, in order not to become insane, having accepted a wolf for the shepherd and having worshipped the enemies—demons” (2:221).

Likewise, another one of the Eastern Fathers, Saint John Climacus (A.D. 525-606) asserts that at least some visions and revelations may be created by the demon of pride who uses them to plant and nurture self-pride in devotees:

When the demon of pride becomes established in his servants, then, appearing to them in a dream or in a vision in an image of an angel of light or a martyr, gives to them revelations of mysteries, and as if a gift of [spiritual] gifts, in order that these unfortunate ones, having succumbed to the temptation, completely lost their mind.

A Sinai Father, Saint Gregory (c. 1260-1346) shows an unbroken continuity of the patristic tradition of prayer and continues to caution against mental imagery during prayer:

[N]ever accept if you see anything physical or spiritual, inside yourself or out, even if it is an image of Christ, or an Angel, or some Saint, or a light appears to you and shows in your mind.  The mind itself has a natural power of imagination and can easily create a phantom image of a thing, which it desires…  In the same way, a recollection of good or bad things usually shows their images in the mind and leads the mind to imagination…  (Philokalia 5:224)

In another place, St. Gregory repeats the same warning even more sternly:

When doing your task [of prayer], you see light or fire outside [yourself] or in, or a face—of Christ, for example, or an Angel, or someone else’s—do not accept it, in order not to suffer damage.  And yourself do not make images; and those that come on their own—do not accept them, and do not allow your mind to keep them. (Philokalia 5:233)  

It becomes clear, therefore, why the Eastern Tradition warns so sternly against accepting any images whatsoever, even those seemingly coming from God.  Instead, an emphasis is placed on humility and repentance, which are seen as the foundation and the goal of prayer.  Saint Ignatii (Bryanchaninov), summarizing this emphasis for novices, wrote:

Concerning voices and apparitions, one must have an even greater caution: here, the demons’ deceit is closer and more dangerous…  This is why the holy fathers taught those beginning prayer not to trust voices and apparitions—but to reject them and not accept them, leaving this to the judgment and the will of God, but for themselves considering humility more useful than any voice or apparition. (Works 2004, 5:306)

Mental prayer, according to Orthodox authors, is achieved

“when the nous, pure from any thoughts and ideas, prays to God without distraction” (Hierotheos 145). 

This type of prayer is achieved by stilling the mind, rather than rousing it with ecstasy, by ignoring apparitions, rather than accepting them as a sign of personal perfection, and by deliberately keeping the mind from creating thoughts and images, rather than using it to exercise imagination.  Thus, ecstatic visions, which were the core of private devotion of some Roman Catholic saints, are considered by the Eastern Tradition to be a temptation to either avoid or fight off, rather than “favors” from God, as Teresa and Mechtilde call them.  Similarly, desiring the images and visions or creating them with the use of imagination is seen as a dangerous practice, leading to neuro-psychological trauma, rather than as an acceptable form of spiritual exercise.

In the context of forbidding attitude of the Eastern Fathers toward mental images, it seems necessary to briefly mention elaborate and very imaginative Orthodox iconography.  Icons in the Orthodox Tradition are used for prayer, meditation, and contemplation.  Yet, even during prayer before icons, which obviously present visual imagery, the use of mental imagery, according to the Orthodox Tradition, is to be avoided.  St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) writes:

The holy icons are accepted by the Holy Church for the purpose of arousing pious memories and feelings, but not at all for arousing imagination.  Standing before an icon of the Savior, stand as if before the Lord Jesus Christ himself, Who is invisibly everywhere present and by His icon is in that place, where the icon is; standing before an icon of the Mother of God, stand as if before the Most-Holy Virgin Herself; but keep your mind without images: there is a great difference between being in the presence of the Lord or standing before the Lord and imagining the Lord. (Works 2004, 1:76)

The specific canons and stylistic rules which guide the writing of an Orthodox icon, therefore, as well as the proper training of the mind, may be seen as the means to achieve the goal formulated above by St. Ignatii—the real presence before the Lord, rather than to express or influence visual imagination. 

Having briefly described the Orthodox position on the use of mental imagery in prayer, I highlighted the rejection and non-acceptance of visions and imagination by the Fathers of the Church.  However, there are some notable exceptions and inconsistencies.  On one hand, patristic and Orthodox authors are certainly aware that some (perhaps, many) saints do have visions which do come from God.  Orthodox hagiographic accounts abound in visions and revelation, including some in what appears to be the state of spiritual ecstasy.  Of the authors, whose works were examined above, St. John Climacus, for example, recounts an apparition he had during prayer, in which he even had a dialogue with the angel:

[A]n angel enlightened me when I thirsted for more revelations.  And again, being in the same state [of seeing], I asked him: “What was the Lord like before He accepted the visible image of human nature?”  But the Prince of Heavenly Hosts could not teach me this, and he was not allowed.  Then I asked him to reveal to me in what state He is now.  “In one that is specific to Him,” he said, “but not in these.”  I asked again: “What is His state of sitting on the right of the Father?”  He answered: “It is impossible to accept the understanding of this mystery through hearing.”  I begged him to lead me to that, which I desired.  But he said: “This time has not yet come, because you still have too little of the fire of incorruption in you.”  However, I do not know and cannot say whether I was in the body or out of the body when this was happening to me. 

It is interesting in this passage that St. John kept asking the angels about the matters which are difficult to place within a personal soteriological context.  Indeed, it may be questionable whether knowing in what state Christ sits on the right of the Father would bring anyone closer to salvation.  It is telling that the angel refused to answer and elaborate on these matters.  Nonetheless, it appears that St. John not only had a vision, but accepted it, conversed with it, and desired more visions or revelations.

St. Gregory of Sinai in retelling about his meeting a holy monk by the name of Maximus Capsokalivite says that the latter not only had visions, but also disagreed with those who rejected them.  Maximus wondered why some people rejected visions despite God Himself offering them to His people through the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28):

Thus, the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord uplifted upon a high throne and surrounded by seraphim.  The first-martyr Stephan saw the heavens opened and the Lord Jesus on the right of the Father, and the rest.  In the same way, today also the servants of Christ are given to see various visions, which some do not believe and do not accept them as truthful, but consider them deceits, and those who see them they call being in a state of deceit. (Philokalia 5:474)

It is unclear whether Maximus would have considered most Roman Catholic ecstatic visions to be from God, but he does add a qualifier:

“[W]hen this grace of the Holy Spirit descends upon someone, then it shows to him not something usual from the things of this sensory world, but shows that, which he has never seen and never imagined” (5:475). 

A very similar thought is contained in the teachings of St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov), who, while being one of the most outspoken critics of visions, contends that some of them are true:

True spiritual visions and feelings belong to the next age, are fully non-material, cannot be explained in the area of senses, through a material word: such is the true sign of that which is truly spiritual.—The voice of the Spirit is non-material; it is fully clear and fully non-material: it is a noetic voice.  In the same way, all spiritual feelings are non-material, invisible, cannot be explained or clearly relayed through human material words… (Works 2004, 5:306-7)

Yet, even St. Ignatii would probably acknowledge that some visions

“relayed through human material words” were nonetheless “truly spiritual.” 

I am not aware of any Orthodox authors, for example, disputing the spirituality of hagiographic accounts of the visions of an angel as told by Abba Dorotheus of Gaza (A.D. 505-565), or the visions of the Theotokos by Saints Andrew and Epiphanius (10th century), Sergius of Radonezh (ca. 1314-1392), Sergius and Herman of Valaam (14th century ?), Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783), or Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), whom St. Ignatii revered as a master of prayer (see, for example, Works 2004, 1:198), or the vision of the Lord by the same Saint Seraphim during a liturgy. 

It appears that the seeming inconsistency in relation to visions in Orthodox patristic writings, may come from their (the writings’) pastoral nature.  While the Fathers are aware of true visions from God and experience them, they are also aware of the real dangers along the spiritual path and warn less experienced adepts to not accept any visions until a certain level of spiritual maturity and a skill of discerning spirits is reached. 

In other words, the Fathers warn the novices not to have the Satan for an iconographer.  Having founded prayer on repentance and humility, rather than on visions and revelations, a person stays on the correct path and is able to overcome the temptations and attacks of the devil regardless of the presence of any visions or their absence.  Founding prayer on ecstatic visions, on the other hand, according to the Orthodox thought, puts the soul, especially that of a novice, on the path of great danger.

Willful and conscious use of imagination, on the other hand, finds favorable or at least tolerant mentions in Orthodox works influenced by Western spirituality.  Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), for example, who is usually seen as somewhat more tolerant of Western spirituality than is St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) (with whom St. Theophan entered into polemic on more than one occasion), wrote that imagining the Lord is acceptable:

“When you contemplate the Divine, then you may imagine the Lord however you want,” but he adds: “During prayer, you should not hold [in your mind] any images…  If you allow images then there is a danger to start praying to a dream” (qtd. in Kuraev, Challenge 121). 

Another example of Western influence may be seen in the works of Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809), one of the compilers of the Philokalia.  His famous work, which was printed in English under the title Unseen Warfare, was based on Combattimento Spirituale by a Roman Catholic priest Lorenzo Scupoli (Handbook, 26), while Nicodemos’ Spiritual Exercises was based on Esercizii Spirituali by Piramonti (28).  Nicodemos, in his Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, warns about the dangers of using imagination, but concedes:

“Finally, it is permissible, when fighting against certain inappropriate and evil imaginations presented by the enemy, to use other appropriate and virtuous imaginations”. 

The wisdom of such advice was questioned by St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) who suggested that one of his correspondents stop reading the Unseen Warfare (which had recently been translated into Russian by Theophan the Recluse) (see Works 2004, 5:274).  While we may never know whether the saint’s correspondent heeded the advice, what is important here is the very fact that even works by respected Orthodox authors, such as St. Nicodemos, may be questioned without much hesitation due to the dissonance they create with the strictly Orthodox path of prayer.


While differences in opinion of Orthodox authors, such as St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) and St. Theophan the Recluse, exist, the overall attitude of the Orthodox Tradition forbids the use of mental imagery in prayer.  Even though the adepts on the higher rungs of the spiritual ladder are reported to have visions and revelations, the general advice to those who have not achieved perfection is to reject or at least ignore all and any visions and apparitions as potentially dangerous.  The basis and the founding principle of Orthodox prayer is seen in repentance and humility, rather than in ecstasy and “favors.”

With respect to the conscious use of imagination during prayer, the prohibition of the Orthodox Tradition is equally strong.  Some use of imagination is viewed by some authors as permissible outside of prayer, but all the Orthodox sources known to me unanimously speak against the conscious and willful use of imagination during prayer.  Thus, there appears to be a clear difference in the area of the use of mental imagery between Roman Catholic prayer as exemplified by Saints Teresa of Avila, Angela of Foligno, and Ignatius of Loyola on the one hand, and the Orthodox tradition of prayer as presented by Saints Ignatii (Bryanchaninov), Nilus and Gregory of Sinai, John Climacus, and others.  While some of the theologians quoted above may have written in part in reaction to Western mystical experience, others—Macarius (4th century), Nilus (5th century), John (6th century), Isaac (7th century), and Simeon the New Theologian (10-11th centuries) —constitute an earlier tradition that predates the lives of St. Teresa and St. Ignatius by several centuries.  Thus, the formative influence of this patristic tradition can be traced through the writings of later Orthodox authors.

Imagine ThatPurchase Imagine That… : Mental Imagery in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Private Devotion on Amazon





Mental Imagery in Eastern Orthodox Private Devotion