Tuesday, November 13, 2007


During my years in the postulancy and novitiate of a Roman Catholic religious congregation, I was given the job of community Sacristan. This role entailed rising before the rest of the community of priests and Brothers to dress the altars, set out the appropriate vestments, mark the correct pages in the Missal and the Lectionary, and arrange the bread and wine that would be consecrated during the celebration of the Eucharist. On Sundays, solemnities and significant feast days, it also meant incense. Somehow, at seventeen, I felt that incense – especially when employed on cold winter mornings – redeemed the lowlier aspects of my humble service. Since ancient times, incense traditionally has been used to symbolize the prayers of the gathered faithful rising up to the Deity. A few years ago, I remember the vicar of a local Episcopalian church telling the assembled choirboys that there were two smells with which all believers should acquaint themselves: incense and sulphur. He cited the Book of Revelation, in which great bowls of incense burn, symbolizing the prayers of the saintly. As for sulphur, he cited Milton’s depictions of Hell in Paradise Lost and a recent incident in the boys’ dining hall. But for me, incense was one of the great gifts of the liturgy because, like music and poetry, art and gesture, it engaged the senses. Often on very important days, we’d have incense once at First Vespers, three or four times during Morning Prayer and Mass and then, again, during Second Vespers. Very fine incenses would arrive from around the world, most notably frankincense, myrrh, and a series of particularly precious incenses from monasteries in Syria and Egypt, and I was anxious to experiment with them all. While burning the incense was easy, keeping the charcoal briquette sufficiently hot in a freezing chapel was a challenge. Once the Prefect caught me mashing multiple burning briquettes in the thurible, a feat which managed to keep the incense burning but which drew laughs from the Brothers when the censer itself started to glow red. Needless to say, that incident was not repeated. For saints I deemed “mystical,” great clouds of incense were the desired effect. On one holy woman’s feast day, a cranky monk (albeit possessed of a wicked sense of humor) remarked that I had created our very own “Cloud of Unknowing.” This point was driven home quite memorably when, not seconds later, a loud crash was heard. It would seem that I had created so much smoke that the priests couldn’t see in front of them and had whacked into the roodscreen. Well, I thought, someone was smiling down on us from above ... and enjoying the smell of it all.


Blogger Marie Fatime of Damascus said...

How wonderful to affirm your roots as you head off as missionary to the Bosporus. Strange that most Catholic parishes use incense almost apologetically, while Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic Churches revel in it (not to mention Wiccans and neo-Pagans). Not only does incense evoke the clouds of eternal mystery, but it involves the sense of smell (and thus brings all five senses into the liturgical experience). One wonders why it is not used more often.

November 14, 2007 at 5:45 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

I've never been much for the "Missionary" in any of its iterations. So proselytizing is most certainly out of the question. As for incense, I'd imagine that the general prejudice against scents in the places where people congregate is responsible. Some people dramatize being offended by scents, as if the person wearing them had gone and exposed herself in public.

November 14, 2007 at 2:13 PM  
Blogger indieperfumes said...

One of the redeeming features of the old Catholic church of my childhood days was that aesthetic experience which included the sense of smell, with the clouds of incense, the polished wood, the cool marble, the drafts careening around the vast spaces, not to mention the layers of meaning clinging to every object and gesture, all very sensual while rejecting sensuality at the same time. So rich and strange and conflicted. Thanks for the posting, it brought back memories. The quality of the associations a perfume triggers is usually what really causes me to fall in love with it.

November 29, 2007 at 3:52 AM  

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