On the use of incense at home for laity
Censing (or burning frankincence) is part of the rites of the Orthodox Church and is performed at church during services. However, besides making the sign of the Cross which is also a compound part of services, after having prayed, chanted the canons or akathists a monk or a pious layperson may also cense his cell/home, the holy icons and his fellowmen who also participated in the prayer. It is an olden custom, an expression of piety. In this case, a type of an ancient hand censer without chains is used (called ‘кацея‘ in Russian – my note
), and a piece of burning wood charcoal together with some incense is placed inside.
In ancient times, frankincence (‘ладан‘ in Russian – my note
), the natural resin of the frankincence tree, was quite an expensive type of incense made in India and the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, therefore churches sometimes used to collect money specifically for the purpose of buying it. As a matter of fact, burning frankincence/censing is first and foremost an offering to God, the same kind of gift the Magi brought to Bethlehem, near the manger, where the newly born Divine Infant, Jesus lay; amongst their other gifts frankincence is mentioned.
Thus burning frankincence is our offering and gift to God, an expression of our greatest worship and awe. This way we demonstrate our deepest devotion and prayer, the purity and sincerity of our faith which accompany us whilst we pray. It sanctifies that which the frankincence was burnt in front of; the grace of the Holy Spirit is sanctioned via it.
How does one burn frankincence properly at home (or in a cell)? It is deemed best that the most senior pious Christian of the house or the head of the household presides over the prayers and the burning of frankincence (in a monastery, if a monk-priest is not present, the most senior monk presides). Whilst placing frankincence into the censer, the Christian must recite the Jesus prayer, then, repeating the same prayer, make the sign of the Cross three times bowing to the waist in front of the holy icons, then start the censing itself. We must first observe the correct sequence of movements and always pray while performing them.
The burning of frankincence always begins with the Life-Creating Cross of our Lord. Whilst holding the censer in your hand, make the sign of the Cross in front of the Holy Cross and, at the same time, recite these words: ‘Glory be Lord to Thy Venerable Cross
’. Then take the censer into your left hand and make the sign of the Cross with your right hand and bow to the waist in front of the Cross. Then turn to the icon of Our Saviour, recite the Jesus prayer whilst censing in front of it, praying and bowing to the waist. Cense the rest of the holy icons in a similar manner. An appropriate prayer has to be recited for every holy icon, e.g. for the Most Holy Mother of God – ‘Most Holy Theotokos, save us
’, for St. Nicholas – ‘O Holy Saint Nicholas, Pray to God for Us
’, then the same movements are repeated as in censing before the Holy Cross – reciting the prayer, making the sign of Cross, then bowing. After censing each of the holy icons, make a single sign of the Cross in front of all of them (basically, the entire icon corner – my note
), intoning the Jesus prayer, and recite afterwards: ‘All you holy Saints of God, pray for us!
’, again making the sign of Cross and bowing. Then turn to your family members who prayed together with you, and cense each of them with the smoke of frankincence, making the sign of the Cross with the censer and reciting the Jesus prayer. It is customary to cense those who first helped in the prayers (read, chanted, lit the candles, lampadas and the censer), then the remaining family members. After returning to your original place (in front of the icon corner – my note
), make a wide, large sign of the Cross sanctifying all those participating in the prayers, then bow to them. All those standing in front of you must all together bow to the waist, then stand up straight again and make the sign of the Cross (no need to bow after that). Somebody eldest in the group must then take the censer from you (you must both bow to each other whilst doing so) and now cense you in the same manner as described previously. After censing the residents of the house you may cense the entire premises except for the toilet(s). You must then use the censer to make the sign of the Cross over each wall, window and door. Whilst doing so you should recite the Jesus prayer or read the 50th Psalm
. In cases of dire need, when a Christian or his family is going through difficult times or grave accidents, you may read the 90th Psalm
or recite the prayer ‘Let God arise…
When you pray at home (in a cell), and while censing, remember the words of Christ our Saviour: ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them
(Matt 18:20) ‘. However, we shouldn‘t forget that home prayers cannot substitute communal, sacramental prayer and the Mysteries of God.
I have to say this is quite ritualistic and may not be an option for everyday prayers, but it gives a clear picture on liturgic precision. I tried to translate this as best as I could, though had most of it translated for me by my friend (she's a native Russian Orthodox). I've now put this together from my own language to English. The style and grammar can sound somewhat cumbersome and I'm not familiar with all the prayers (had to check between Lithuanian, Russian and English), so please submit any suggestions or corrections where necessary, that would be much appreciated
Hope this helps.