Saturday, January 14, 2017

KKQ 2017: Saturday Morning, Smelling

Here is where I explain this little series of meditations...

Psalm 45; Luke 15:17-24

If I told you this was going to be a spiritual meditation on our sense of smell...I know, I'd be a little skeptical, too.  Then again, I don't think I'm alone in believing the smell of hot coffee and sizzling bacon in the morning is a spiritual experience.

It's just that there aren't that many fragrances in scripture, other than a little incense in the temple, a little frankincense and myrrh, and the oil a woman once poured over Jesus' feet.  The Ignatian tradition of prayer, from the 17th century, invites us to enter scripture more deeply, to read with all our senses, so that we might imagine the smell of the fruit in Adam and Eve's hands, or the odor of an ark full of animals, of dust and sweat covered disciples, the earthiness of a vineyard or the sweetness of a wheat field, the smell of fish being cooked over a fire on the beach, or the fatted calf prepared for feast when a prodigal has returned.

It's also an unusual subject for a meditation because our sense of smell is so personal, almost uncomfortably intimate.  Unlike seeing or hearing, which can be done at a distance, we have to be pretty close to something to smell it (except, bless them, for skunks and 16-year-old son's laundry baskets).  And smells, unlike light or sound, linger - they hover in the air as particles, not waves, entering over and over again into our bodies through our noses as we perform the simple but necessary act of breathing.  Odors can be absorbed into fabrics and hair and skin, and so can remain long after the source of the odor is gone.

So it's a little strange to meditate on how our noses help us notice God.  But then again, has the smell of something wonderful ever stopped us in our work, slowed and deepened our inhaling, made us close our eyes to focus on the fragrance?  Maybe lilacs or lavender, pine needles or pumpkin spice, that first whiff of sea air, a newborn's head, or warm chocolate cake?  We have noses for a reason, and if it is in part to sniff out danger, it must also be for the sake of delight, a gift from God, and a part of how we come to know the world.

The intimacy of smell is literally deeply physical, far more than just our proximity to something fragrant.  Receptor cells are triggered, and the impulses they send travel through our limbic system, the most primal part of our bodies, to which, in our brains, the hippocampus and amygdala are attached.  These perform associative thinking and process emotion, and together they make memories.  When we smell something, our brains, unbidden, whip that fragrance together with how we're feeling or where we are or who we're with, so that when we smell that thing again, we are immediately transported back to that time or person or place.  The oil and heat of a sewing machine smell like our grandmother's house.  The wool I bought on Iona smells just like being there.  The smoke wafting from a neighbor's chimney back home smells like the fireplace lounge here.  The tomato sauce at dinner takes us back to our grandfather's kitchen.  Your WindSong literally stays on my mind.

If all of this isn't enough to convince us to consider our noses as a spiritual gift, there are a few other passages in scripture that speak of smell.  From the letter to the Ephesians, "Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us as a fragrant offering to God."  And from the second letter to the Corinthians, "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved."  We are the aroma of Christ, the aroma of love, the fragrance of offering and sacrifice.  How profoundly intimate. In the movie Michael, the archangel smells like cookies to people around him.  What does it mean to smell like someone who follows Christ?

In some Episcopal Churches it very well may mean to smell a little like frankincense, so thick are the clouds of it hanging in the air.  Mostly, I think, carrying the aroma of Christ has to do with letting kindness and mercy and grace waft between us and linger on us, so that anyone who wanders our way senses welcome, as when we smell something that reminds us of home.  A blessing in the service of morning prayer we use at the Cathedral says, "Live so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends."

What will we smell today?  Please do respect personal space!  But amidst the aromas of steam and warm fabric, wooden needles and wool, bread and wine and breakfast and mountain air, perhaps we will also breathe in Christ.  What wonders there are to behold!  Amen.

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