Smells and Liturgy

Here are some lovely excerpts from Nathan  Mitchell’s article “Smells and Bells” from his The Amen Corner (Worship: November 1998 Volume 72 Number 6):

“Smell,” writes Diane Ackerman, “is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation. We see only when there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough. But we smell always and with every breath. Cover your eyes and you will stop seeing, cover your ears and you will stop hearing, but if you cover your nose and try to stop smelling, you will die.”

“Our bodies, Ackerman goes on to suggest, are breweries in which we smoke, steam and ferment the world as it passes through them, returning it transfigured – a fragrant, luscious liquor.”

“My earliest memories of church are likewise olfactory – the exotic combination of beeswax, incense and charcoal as you neared the sacristy; the musty, slightly sour smell of the cloth curtain suspended in front in front of the grill that separated you from the priest in the confessional;…”

“All of which suggests, of course, that our earliest exposure to meaning in church buildings and rituals may be derived from our body’s brewery, from its mute sense of smell. Our earliest liturgical formation may well be olfactory – breathed in as “cooked air” – rather than cognitive or verbal. A remnant of such formation remains in the ancient structures of  Christian initiation (now partially recovered in the RCIA), where candidates are slathered with balsam-scented chrism before they are instructed in its mystagogic meanings. Chrism was meant to be pleasurable before it was “meaningful.” Or better, perhaps, chrism acquired meaning precisely because it was first an exquisite source of pleasure – aromatic, silky, spicy as olives and sticky as resinous bark.

It may be that the sensory impoverishment and deprivation of so much liturgy today results from our rush to make intelligibility the centerpiece of reform and renewal. In this we have unwittingly affirmed that ancient apartheid which pits mind against matter, exalting thought over action, spirit over body, doctrine over doxology, and belief over behavior. The unintentional consequence is a liturgy which “explains” rather than evokes, speaks rather than sings, drones rather than dances, and skulks rather soars.”




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