Monday, October 14, 2013

Recovering the Spirituality of Scent

The Spirituality of Smell, part 3

In our previous posts, ‘A whiff from which to benefit’ and ‘Scent and the Christian Church’, we began to explore the important role that fragrance plays in spirituality in general and the Christian church in particular. I ended the last post by suggesting that some of these truths have been lost in contemporary religious experience.

It is true that the Christian church has never ceased to use smell in its liturgical piety. In the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, incense made from Frankincense and other odor-producing plants forms an important part of their worship. Nevertheless, it is still safe to say that the spiritual importance of scent has been largely eclipsed in the Western world, especially among evangelical Protestant.

This was impressed upon me earlier this year when I was speaking to a young Christian man who told me how he liked to inhale the smell of anointing oil from the Middle East during his time of prayer. But, my friend was quick to add that “it was only a symbol”, meaning that nothing of spiritual importance actually happened when he used the sweet-smelling fragrance during times of prayer. Just as Protestants in the tradition of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) have been quick to emphasize that the Eucharist is purely a symbol with no intrinsic efficacy, so many Christians are also uncomfortable acknowledging that there is anything of spiritual importance intrinsic to fragrance.

John Calvin, like other Protestant reformers, taught that smell had no place in Christian devotion. In his Commentary on John chapter 4, Calvin specifically cited incense as an example of the type of ceremonialism he believed to be inappropriate in the gospel age. For Calvin, the crude sensory things of the body were inherently antithetical to the things of the spirit, and it is only because “we are so ignorant” and “so given up to earthly and carnal things” that “the merciful Lord accommodates himself in this to the crudity of our senses.” (Cited in ‘Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (10): Dumb Sacraments?’) Other Christian thinkers have gone even further to suggest a complete antithesis or dualism between the things of the spirit vs. the things of matter. (See my ongoing series of articles Gnosticism and evangelicalism.) Behind this antipathy to scent was a more general commitment to downplaying the role of sense perception for a more cerebral concept of religion.

Thomas Aquinas
Even before the Protestant reformation, the role played by scent in opening us up to the things of God was implicitly downplayed by a more cerebral, rationalistic vision of spirituality epitomized by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas conceived Christian perfection in distinctly disembodied terms, as David Bradshaw explained in his paper ‘Concept of the Divine Energies:’
“According to Aquinas, in the afterlife God will infuse the blessed with the lumen gloriae, the ‘light of glory’ that will enable them to apprehend the divine essence. All of our present acts are designed to bring us to that point. The body has no real role in the beautific vision, and indeed Aquinas states explicitly that the resurrection of the body is not necessary for beatitude and does nothing to increase its intensity. So far as I can see, the same is true of our memory and other personal characteristics. Since the beatific vision is strictly an act of intellect, it is no more a personal act than is the Aristotelian theōria upon which it is modeled.”
Within this framework, no less than the theology of Calvin, the real action of the spiritual life happens in the mind: what goes on in the body and with the senses is of infinitely less importance.

A truly Biblical understanding of the body rejects this type of crypto-Gnosticism. Vigen Guroian articulates this well in his book The Fragrance of God. The book is about what you might call a theology of smell, and Guroian wisely realizes in chapter one that before he can develop a theology of smell it is the necessary to re-appropriate the intrinsic importance of the body. Let me leave you with his words:

This body and self (or soul) dualism some pass off as true Christianity. Yet that is a lie. Christianity rejected this sort of dualism right from the start. That spirit is good and matter is evil, or that the one is eternal and the other merely temporal, was a common belief in aniquity. Christianity answered by affirming, instead, the resurrection of the body. It described the person as a body and soul unity.

We make a big mistake when we devalue the body and the senses. Our senses are important stepping-stones on the path to God and Paradise. When I kneel in my garden, the aromas of the plants may overwhelm me, yet I may not see any save those immediately in front of me. When I kneel in prayer, God’s presence permeates my entire being, though he remains invisible to my eyes.

It is true that, when all is said and done, we must transcend our fallen senses, included the sense of smell, for the higher spiritual senses of a life unaffected by sin. Yet with the proper discipline even our earthly senses may assist us in the journey to God. God has filled the whole of Creation with signs of his existence, signs that our senses can apprehend and that our minds can translate into knowledge of him….

In the pearly petals of the star of Bethlehem, the mockingbird’s evening song, the pomegranate’s sanguine seed. The lilac’s perfume scent, and the eggplant’s silky skin, Paradise shows itself to holy senses. Through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, God meets us in the Garden.

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