From the time of the apostles it has been noted in scripture that the home is a seamless extension of the Church. In the wedding ceremony in the Byzantine Church this point is made known when the priest places crowns on the heads of the couple, crowning them not only as martyrs for each other's sake, but as the leaders of the newly-established domestic church which is their new family.
As the leaders of this domestic church, parents lead their little congregation of saints toward their salvation by performing all their daily duties in harmony with the will of God. As a sign of the family's prayerful consecration, they set up a designated place in their home in which they can gather themselves spiritually and offer daily worship, just like a little private chapel of their very own! This is called an "icon corner" or a "home altar".
Every family should have such a place in their home! It can be fun and easy to create and doesn't have to be at all expensive. It should be in an accessible spot where morning and evening prayers can be offered, or individual family members can go to spend some quiet time with the Lord.
Traditionally, the icon corner was placed in a prominent place in the home, preferably facing east. Byzantine homes traditionally centered the corner around icons of Christ the Teacher (on the right) and the Theotokos (on the left), just as on the iconostasis in the church. The family's icons, statues, or crucifix could be used as a focal point, and a shelf could be installed there to accommodate favorite devotionals, a copy of Scripture, beads, medals, relics and other sacramentals. Often, a votive lamp is hung just in front of the icons or a blessed candle on the wall, and a holy water font is often placed there as well. Children love to place flowers before the icons as an offering to Christ, His Mother, or a favorite saint. They love to change the linens, which can be made and collected in all the liturgical colors, reflecting the feast of the day. In order to make the icon corner a teaching tool, a family may opt to purchase an inexpensive 11x14 frame and print out copies of various icons to display for the feasts, changing them throughout the year as necessary. Another way to allow the children to enjoy the icon corner is to use a battery-operated votive candle which would allow it to remain lit 24 hours a day. This is especially helpful to have as a nightlight, keeping bad dreams at bay.
There are as many different icon corners as there are Christian families and there is no wrong way to do it, as long as it reflects the family's love for God. It's as simple as collecting all their spiritual treasures in one place.
Every year at about this time my girls and I begin to prepare to celebrate the Procession of the Holy Cross by polishing the wooden crucifix which is the central figure in our family icon corner.
In our case it is not really a corner at all, but a space on the wall just to the left of out front door. It has been a part of our family since before our family came to be. It seems like I've always had one! I remember when I was in high school taking a course in Russian history, (remember, this is during the 1980's and everyone was interested in Russia then), and we had to watch the movie "Nicholas and Alexandra". In the movie, the Tsarina Alexandra went to an interior corner of the private area of the palace and began to pray before an icon which had a lamp burning before it, just as one would see in a church. I thought to myself, "Wow! She doesn't even have to leave her house! How great is that!" As I have always had a tendency to love prayer, I had to have one too and after a little research I learned that you didn't need to be a princess or live in Russia to have an icon corner in your home. In fact, this has always been a well established tradition among our Carpatho-Rusyn ancestors! After learning this I promptly gathered together all of my religious art and articles and displayed them on a corner table in my room. From that time on, I have always had an icon corner. When I moved on to school, and then to work out of town, a semblance of the corner came with me, and when my husband and I married and built our family home, a crucifix which came to us as a wedding gift became the focal point. On either side are icons of Our Lord and Our Lady which we purchased from our friends and monastery family, the nuns at Holy Annunciation Monastery in Sugarloaf, (we so love them, and it is a reminder for us to pray for them every day). A shelf below the icons holds a frame in which we place a copy of the icon for the saint of the day or season, to keep us current liturgically and to teach the children about the calendar. Our patronal icons are placed above these, with mine and my husbands above those of the Theotokos and of Christ respectively, and at the children's in an arched row at the top.
We put our chotki, medals, etc. there too, along with offerings of flowers from our yard...or from the store. When our old parish was replacing an old wooden confessional kneeler, the custodian, who was a dear old woman named Margaret, was instructed to burn it. Margaret had known me since before I was born, and had probably known my father from before HE was born, and she knew about my love of prayer. She sat directly behind me at most Divine Liturgies and in her later years she didn't often realize that she was actually adding to the priest's petitions not in her mind, but out loud. As he would intone for peace, or for the sick, suffering and captives, and she would intone in a whisper the names of all those sick and suffering souls she knew who needed prayer. I miss her voice behind me now. She was an inspiration. Please say a prayer for my friend, Margaret will you? Anyway...
As Margaret found she couldn't bring herself to burn it, and she knew I loved to pray, she offered the old kneeler to me and it has found a place at our corner as well. I like to think about all of the relatives and friends, generations of them, many long gone to their repose now, who had once knelt there when it had been used in the confessional. God grant them eternal memory!
Our liturgical books and such are there as well, and we place a jar there for spare change and use the money to buy offerings for the poor during the holidays. Each season gives us the opportunity as a family, to display a new icon on the shelf for contemplation, to change the colors of the cloths which decorate our corner, and adorn it with flowers, fruits or what have you, bringing the liturgical season to life.
Of all the things I love best about this sacred space in our home, it is the fact that our upstairs balcony overlooks it, and when my children were small, they used to line up in their 'jammies, kneeling at the railing so as to see the icons below, to say their prayers. Hopefully, someday, they too will want such a place in their own homes to teach their children to say their prayers. And so we pass on the traditions of our faith.
How to Set Up your own Icon Corner
1, Choose an area in your home
-Preferably facing east. This is traditional, and scriptural
-in a convenient place where your family will be able to gather for prayer
2. Choose a focal point
-Wedding icons make the perfect focal point! I never stopped to consider the fact that THIS is why the traditional gift from parent to children on their wedding day is a set of icons! It's for their first icon corner! Christ the Teacher on the right, and the Theotokos on the left.
3. Gather all the icons!
- They can be patronal icons for each member of the family, or icons of beloved saints;
My daughter, as a Christmas gift one year, gave us small patronal icons, one for each member of the household, to place above the two main ones, just like an iconostasis!
-A dollar store frame (8x10) can contain prints of festal icons that can be changed as often as you like, even daily. I keep this on a shelf below the icons.
4. Gather other items such as:
prayer or service books
relics or other sacramentals
holy water, blessed oil or salt
votive candle or hanging lamp
Jar or basket for collecting alms
5. Decorate your icon corner for the liturgical seasons
-collect altar cloths in various liturgical colors that your children can change with the season
Offer flowers on feast days, leaves for Pentecost, fruits for Transfiguration, lights at Christmas, lillies and a banner on Pascha, etc.
-Make a wreath of flowers to adorn the crucifix on feasts that commemorate the Holy Cross
(instructions are coming up soon!!)
When and how to use your family icon corner
1. Morning and evening prayer: my children and I would gather there before their breakfast to offer the day to God right from the start, and would offer evening prayers before heading off to bed each night.
2. Times of joy: We would often stop to offer flowers and prayers of thanksgiving for happy occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
3. Times of sorrow: We would also keep and display the memorial cards of loved ones who had passed into eternal life at our prayer corner, usually for 40 days after their departure, as a reminder to keep those souls in our prayers.
4. Times of stress: This is where we would gather to light a blessed candle and offer prayers of protection during thunderstorms, difficult or stressful situations or sicknesses.
5. Not every visit to the icon corner was a family event. Unscheduled and spontaneous visits to the icon corner came often for each individual family member as often as needed. It was not uncommon to find a child kneeling before the icons with their little eyes fixed, sometimes tearfully, on Jesus or His Blessed Mother. I must admit, I do this a lot, myself...that's where they must have gotten the idea. There's something comforting about having a special little place to go where you can be alone with God amidst the whirlwind of daily life, where no one dares disturb you because you are "talking to Jesus". (If it works for Mommy, it might work for me!) I must also add that this arose spontaneously and never was the prayer corner used as time-out! I wanted it to be clear that Jesus was to be approached willingly always! Prayer is to be seen as something to be desired, and never, ever, as a punishment..that would be too confusing.
Our prayer corner has been established in the foyer of our home now for 24 years. It has seen visitors come and go, and more importantly, the visitors have seen it and their reactions have been priceless. From family members to maintenance crews, everyone sees it and often, it becomes a great tool for evangelization. Some visitors have reverenced it respectfully, some have gazed at it lovingly from a distance, some have looked puzzled, and a few have even run away in fright!...no kidding. (That's a good story for another day!) Most importantly, our children have seen us pray and God sees it, and He knows that He has a very special, visible, prominent place in our domestic church.