The Sense of Smell
Ordinary Sunday 33, 13 November, 2011
Bishop John Bayton AM, One-time Vicar of St Peter's
Preached at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Worship of the God of heaven and earth requires that we use all of our senses — the sense of Smell, of Sight, of Hearing, of Touch, and Taste.
As we enter this sacred space (Saint Peter's) we are overwhelmed first by the sense of smell then, as we dip our fingers into the water in the holy stoup, by the sense of touch. The fantastic visual impact on the sense of sight — the High Altar with its Predella (the Iconostasis) — pre-vents (in the old sense of the verb, precedes or anticipates or accentuates) the sense of Hearing as we celebrate the Word of God in the Lections, and in the sense of Taste as we receive Holy Communion.
Some years ago as I was speaking at a conference of Bishops I asked them to write down what they remembered of the abiding smell of childhood. Twenty-six of them out of the thirty-four replied 'the smell of newly baked bread'. As I reflect on my own childhood I remember the smell of my grandmother's bedroom — lavender. I can still recall the smell of beef dripping on hot toast for our Sunday night's evening meal. The smell of mangoes freshly picked from our own tree in the back yard. Then in adulthood the smell of death, particularly on the day when with a group of students at St George's College Jerusalem we stood at the Wall that divides Palestine from Israel. I recall the smell of coconut oil in the cathedral on Thursday Island. The smell of a cigar; of coffee; the smell of approaching rain after drought. In France one Saturday morning the smell of a sausage like that of a wet dog. And so on.
What smells do you recall from your childhood? Which perfume did you use today: Calvin Klein, Burberry, Paris, Polo, Old Spice? With which smell do you identify as you worship?
On the Feast of St Catherine of Alexandria, in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in the monastery on Mount Sinai one morning, I watched as the monks removed the lid of her coffin, as they do annually. Immediately there arose the overpowering smell of roses.
The senses also have the power to destroy. Remember the story of Ulysses. After he left Circe, he plugged his mens' ears against the songs of the sirens and had himself tied to the mast as he sailed through the Straits. He said, "What are these women tempting me with but wisdom? Not the sweet smell of their breasts nor of perfume ... When I come to, my men say they never saw me so peaceful."
We recall the dialogue between the women and Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus: "He has been there four days already and he stinks!" What was the smell of the Garden of Eden, Paradise? We take the sense of smell for granted. I am suggesting that it is a God-given gift and we ought to be perhaps more conscious of it than we are. Remember the smell of a new car? The smell of a new born child. Can you imagine the smell of the forty-eight kilograms of spices and aloes that Nicodemus brought to fill the grave clothes of the Saviour? [John 19: 39] Could you possibly lift forty-eight kilos? Is this hyperbole or another lost Platonic number!
Not all smells are good or nice or positive. Bad breath. B.O. The foul demon smell of a sneeze. Stagnant water. A wound that will not heal. A wet dog. A fart after the night before dinner of Indian curry!
On 28th October, the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, Her Majesty the Queen opened the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Perth. Now, as with all major Australian Royal, Vice Regal and other significant occasions there was an indigenous 'smoking ceremony'. Those entering the Perth Assembly Hall had to pass through a cleansing eucalyptus smoke. This indigenous ritual has now passed into folk-lore, though I personally have no remembrance of any 'smoking ceremony' in my own ministry to Aborigines and Islanders over many years. However, three years ago that ceremony was enacted when St John's Cathedral in Brisbane was consecrated. That night, as I passed through the smoke I realized the incredible value of incense in our Anglican rituals. The very word 'per-fume' means 'smoked through'.
In some churches the thought of using incense is abhorrent. Why? Because we have failed to teach the value and inner meaning of it. The ancients had a saying that "Every blade of grass has an angel who watches over it and says 'Grow! Grow!" in order that the sweet smelling perfume of every blade might overcome the evils of the world. According to Christopher Bamford [see Parabola, Spring 2006, p. 62ff] the story of smell has its origins in ancient Egypt with herbs now long extinct. Smell had an inner meaning, it lay between spirit and matter, cause and effect, seed and fruit. Temple rituals of Egypt, of Assyria, of ancient Israel-Judah, were always accompanied by the sound of chant and the silence of meditation accompanied by the smell of incense, oils and unguents. Statues were daily anointed with unguents and decked with flowers. This ancient ritual prevails to this very day outside this very Church at the Wayside Crucifix where people lay flowers and have done so for almost a century. The need to provide sweet smelling offerings is as ancient as time itself.
The Bible is filled with the imagery of the sense of smell. God commands it to be used by Moses in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and in Solomon's temple. Korah, Dathan and Abihu were condemned for using it unlawfully. Isaiah Chapter 6 tells us "In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord high and lifted up ... the thresholds shook and the Temple was filled with smoke." The Magi brought sweet smelling incense to the Babe of Bethlehem. The Birth of John the Baptist is announced to his father as he was praying as he burned incense in the Temple. The author of Book of the Revelation to John describes incense as 'the prayers of the saints'.
The scented world constitutes a liturgy and "to smell is to participate in the union of heaven and earth, prayers ascending and descending." [op. cit. p. 65] Smell unites heaven and earth; it unifies two worlds; unity is about the sacred. Indigenous Australians have sacred sites, sacred things (tjuringa), not religious institutions. Their society, their culture is about the unity of the sleeping and the waking mind — the 'Dreaming'. [There is no such thing as "The Dreamtime"]
The language of religion is poetry! But not all poets share the sense of belonging to two worlds. William Blake did. T.S. Eliot certainly did. W. H. Auden, whose poetry is descriptive of urban scenes, thought Blake was 'dotty'! Auden was a photographer of urban realities. Eliot who considered landscapes 'ideas of the imagination' was an iconographer.
It is W. B. Yeats who constellates both the inner world and the outer world. His vision of Byzantium (the iconography of which the St Peter's Icon School still teaches to this day) manifests the Platonist idea that the true function of art is to reflect inner order. The intelligible order we write and paint about in the St Peter's Icon School reflects and corresponds to 'originals laid up in heaven'. This is the idea of Moses' Tabernacle in the Wilderness, Solomon's Temple and Herod's Temple. It ought also to be the ideal of church architecture — as it is of course here in St Peter's — Holy of Holies; Holy Place; The Place of the People and the Laver, the baptismal font. This Platonist thought is caught up by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews who claims Jesus Christ to be the true icon of the Father!
Beauty, like smell, belongs to the sacred order and we respond to it in ways that cannot be quantified, because it evokes an image of something we have always known, e.g. Eliot's Little Gidding — in my beginning is my end. It is for this reason people of every religion, of every age, have sought to regain Paradise — the search for that which was lost. Plato believed that before we were born we knew everything. At the moment of birth — 'the Fall', we lost it all and we spend the rest of our lives regaining that which was lost — Paradise — through the use of our senses.
Paradise/Creation is not a mechanism, but something to be experienced in the employment of our five senses. We know this every time we enter this Church of St Peter who, by the way, before his Call most probably smelled of fish; and who after the Ascension as a shepherd most probably smelled of lanolin. The sweet smell of incense pervades our worship and designates our belonging to both this world and the Other.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.