Monday, October 14, 2013

A Whiff from Which to Benefit

The Spirituality of Smell, part 1

Earlier this year when I wasn't as busy, I took a few days to read about the interface between spirituality and smell. What follows is the first installment in a series of posts drawn from the notes I took during this reading.

A vast censer
St. Ephrem the Syrian
     exhaling fragrance
impregnates the air
     with its odoriferous smoke,
imparting to all who are near it
     a whiff from which to benefit.
How much the more so
     with Paradise the glorious:
even its fence assists us,
     modifying somewhat
that curse upon the earth
     by the scent of its aromas

St. Ephrem the Syrian
Hymns on Paradise, 11:13

Saint Ephrem the Syrian (306–373) penned the above words in his Hymn on Paradise, reflecting the early Christian belief that fragrance played an important role in connecting us to the things of the spirit. Even in our cursed world, nature acts as a giant censer by which the Almighty impregnates our air with the odors of paradise.

If you don’t know what St. Ephrem is talking about, here is something you can do. Take a walk to the ocean, or a pine forest, or just a field—anywhere in the natural world removed from the sights and sounds of urban life. Turn off your i-phone or any electronic device, empty your mind of all distracting thoughts and just surrender to the smells in the air.

Whether it is the fresh smell of the ocean that is refreshing and vibrant, or the uplifting and stabilizing smell of woodland, you’ll find yourself enveloped in smells that embody the very personality of the location. “Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow up on my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad.” (Song of Songs 4:16)

This sensitivity to smell takes practice. We usually take smells for granted, and although they influence us on a subliminal level, we tend to focus more on what we see with our eyes. However, when we learn to cultivate the sense of smell, our senses begin to be opened up to a whole new dimension.

I think St. Ephrem must have experienced something like this when he referred to the “vast censer / exhaling fragrance…imparting to all who are near it / a whiff from which to benefit.”

There is no substitute to experiencing the smells of the natural world in this way. However, if you don’t have the time or ability to commune with the smells of nature, a whiff of essential oils can be almost just as good. The bracing and exhilarating smell of Idaho Blue Spruce essential oil gives the sense of being in an Idaho forest, while one whiff of the thick and earthy fragrance of Vetiver essential oil can transport a person into lush woodlands with damp grasses and wild herbs.

In the next post on the spirituality of smell, I will be looking specifically at the relationship between smell and the church.

Further Reading

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