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What Does Holiness Smell Like?


Br. Paul Clarke, O.P. - published on 05/07/15

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.

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