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What does holiness smell like?
An odd question, perhaps. But we frequently use such sense-metaphors to describe things spiritual. We talk (usually metaphorically) about seeing holiness, hearing the Lord’s voice, feeling the presence of God, or even tasting that the Lord is good (Psalm 34). But smelling?
In the world of the early Church, it was natural to employ a vocabulary of smell to articulate and preach the Gospel. The use of “olfactory imagery” was rooted in ritual sacrifice and ingrained in religious liturgy, writing and popular piety. Christians could look to Genesis 8:20, where some inspired literary license describes God as “smelling the pleasing odor” rising from Noah’s sacrifice. The connection between sacrifice and smell gives Paul, now with Christ’s sacrifice in mind, the imagery to speak of the “aroma of Christ,” and the fragrance of the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 2:14-16). Furthermore, since we are to present our own bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), we are Χριστοῦ εὐωδία, the “good smell” of Christ, which offers worship to God in a way that burnt bulls and goats never could.
The cultural basis for much of this sense imagery has since disappeared. In fact, we can be hard-pressed to find a robust sniff-factor in our religious experience, so that metaphors of smell make little impression when they don’t sound ill-advised or downright gross.
This correlates with a wider cultural experience of smell in a post-industrial, consumer-driven society where we are perhaps more sensitive to scents, fragrances and so on, but also more abstracted from what you might pedantically call the semantics of smell. In the U.S., the custom of bathing daily already puts us in a different olfactory dimension from, say, our pioneer ancestors, let alone the early Christians. But we don’t stop at the purely negative, odor-neutralization stage. We also spice things up with perfumes, colognes, body sprays, air fresheners, scented candles, and so on. Advances in what I imagine is called scent-technology have helped to insulate us from the smells of our immediate surroundings. We can create what Yankee Candle rather astonishingly calls “” through custom “Fragrance Layers” and “Fragrance Mixology.” Somehow I find the pizza- or hotdog-scented t-shirts from Skymall more appealing than candles wafting the silky scents of “Soft Blanket” or “Strawberry Buttercream.”
All this can disconnect us from the “givenness” and native meaning of smells. It can disorient us by severing the imaginative connection between the effect (smell of bread baking) and the source (bread? candle? Air Wick?). Too often scents and fragrances are manipulated to mask rather than reveal—Plato’s complaint about cosmetics in the Gorgias. Few people are going to attempt to quench their thirst with their “On Tap” candle (“The cool, golden aroma of a freshly poured draft beer”), but precisely by their success and similitude, these sorts of olfactory experience tamper with the attractions and associations established by smell.
Yet despite our culture’s tendency to reduce the significance of smell to the bizarre, therapeutic, and effete, our intuitions about smell are not lost. When Pope Francis warns that moralism diminishes the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” we get the point even if the metaphor remains obscure. Likewise, when he exhorts priests to “have the smell of the sheep,” those of us whose experience of sheep is limited to Babe and lamb stew can still find the comparison helpful.
I think that an area in which smell can still serve as a rich metaphor for the Christian life is in its relation to memory. It is a familiar experience to catch a sudden whiff of some familiar but nearly forgotten smell, then have a memory spontaneously spring to life. For me, the scent of fresh-cut grass calls up vivid, sun-drenched memories of baseball practice during hot Midwestern summers. The smell of an old glove, with its pungent bouquet of leather, linseed oil and sweat, has a similar effect.
Smells stimulate, conjure up memories, and also evoke a yearning, not mainly to relive the experience, to be “seventeen forever,” but to possess (return to?) the original wholeness of being, of which that experience was a glimpse, taste, and faint enticing scent. In this sort of nostalgia, there is an ache for the ultimate. There is, in the background of these memories, a single, towering memory, so grand that we hesitate to do more than hint at it. As Pope Francis puts it, “We possess within us a yearning for the infinite, an infinite sadness, a nostalgia—the nostos algos (homesickness) of Odysseus—which is satisfied only by an equally infinite response.”
At times we seek to eliminate this homesickness by willful amnesia. The English Dominican Simon Tugwell has suggested that the consequence of original sin is to attempt systematically to forget God. If only we could forget God, then our doubts about our own divinity would be laid to rest. A whiff of bona fide holiness, however, can so jar and jostle us that we are moved to recall something deeper, more basic to us as creatures. The grace of a holy life can jog the memory and take us back not merely temporally to some past experience, but also existentially to the foundation of our being, to an encounter with the God who created us out of love and who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
The metaphor of smell, particularly in its ability to trigger memory, gives us a grammar to describe how the grace of God confronts us through the holiness of others. By offering our lives in sacrifice to God as spiritual worship, we are the “good smell” of Christ, a living invitation to others to smell and see that the Lord is good.
Br. Paul Clarkeentered the Order of Preachers in 2013. He is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where he studied philosophy. This article was published inDominicana, a publication of the Dominican Studium of the St. Joseph Province of the Order of Preachers, and is reprinted here with permission.