Monday, October 14, 2013

Scent and the Christian Church

The Spirituality of Smell, part 2

In the first post in this series, I cited the 4th century Saint, Ephrem the Syrian, who taught that God conveys His love to us through the smells of our world, which he referred to as “A vast censer exhaling fragrance.”

Saint, Ephrem the Syrian was not alone in his high view of fragrance. When the Church Father Origen (182-254) needed a metaphor for Christ’s love, he turned naturally to the world of smell and perfume:

When souls…have experienced the pleasantness of His [Christ’s] sweetness and odour, when they have received the fragrance of His ointments and have grasped at last the reason for His coming, the motives of the Redemption and Passion, and the love whereby He, the Immortal, went even to the death of the cross for the salvation of all men, then these maiden souls, attracted by all this as by the odours of a divine and ineffable perfume and being filled with vigour and complete alacrity, run after Him and hasten to the odour of His sweetness, not at a slow pace, nor with lagging steps, but swiftly and with all the speed they can. (Commentary on Song of Songs)

The notion that scent is spiritually potent was not an idea unique to the early Christians. There are numerous references to the spiritual power of scent throughout the Old Testament. In fact, 36 of the 39 books of the Old Testament either mention essential oils (the perfumes of the ancient world) or the plants used to produce them. (See ‘The 12 Oils of Ancient Scripture’ and David Stewart books Healing Oils of the Bible.) Most notably, when God told Moses how to make incense for use in the holy temple, a key ingredient was Frankincense, one of the most valuable essential oils of the ancient world (Exodus 30:34-35). The use of Frankincense in Hebrew temple liturgy served an important purpose, since Frankincense has been known throughout antiquity for its role in opening a person up to the things of the spirit.

Ancient paganism also understood that the olfactory sense played a crucial role in connecting us to the spiritual dimension, as Susan Harvey showed in her book Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination.

Unfortunately the contemporary church has lost much of this perspective on the spiritual importance of smell and in our next post we will explore some possible reasons for this.

Further Reading

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