Hallo again to all.
We're told that Life began in a garden called Eden. And began again in yet another garden, bursting from a tomb. It's easy enough to think of a garden and see flowers. But in Eastertide, when we think of a gardenparticularly that garden in a graveyard, with its gardener, the Lord of Lifewe think of the sense of smell.
'Smell was the first of our senses, and it was so successful that in time the small lump of olfactory tissue atop the nerve cord grew into a brain. Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from olfactory stalks. We think because we smelled', writes Diane Ackermann in A Natural History of the Senses.
And the Christian story has been scented from the beginning. The Angel Gabriel, with a sweet Easter lily for a wand, appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Two of the supposed first gifts to the Christ Child were perfume, more or less: frankincense (rich, redolent, resinous) and myrrh (sweet, aromatic, spicy). A later myth has it that Our Lady, during the flight to Egypt, washed linen in a stream and laid it on lavender bushes to dry. And one evening in the candlelighted shadows the contents of an alabaster jarspikenardwere lavishly spilled by a lady (call her Mary Magdalen) upon Our Lord. Spikenard (Nardosatchys jatamansi) has 'leaves that smell strongly of valerian, but the root, even when fresh, has a pleasant scent of patchouli, slightly sweetened with something resembling musk'.
A traditional mark of sainthood has been the ability to forestall the natural putrefaction of the body after death, contradicting death's decay by sheer sanctity. Countless stories exist of saints' coffins, exhumed and opened after centuries, releasing sweet scents, often, oddly, of violets. Or perhaps not so oddly, for violet is 'similar to the scent of a clean, healthy human body, and it may be recalled in this connection that certain individuals have been noticed to have a natural scent of violets, such as many people remarked in Walt Whitman'. (Alas, we've lost the source of this quotation, read many years ago.)
It has been said that denominations favour one sense over another. Children of Calvinism are all ear: hearing the stark Word, pristine and isolated, eschewing all other sensory channels to the heart. The Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican communions, revelling in the Incarnation, magnify the eye: all is lush beauty, sculpture, stained glass, visually rich. (Like all generalisations, it reduces to extremes. But there is truth in it.) At its best surely the worship of God should take in all senses and make use of eye, ear, touch, taste, and smell. Too often, aside from occasional high-holy-day blasts of incense or a bank of lilies, we forget the first of all our senses. Perhaps there are ways to weave the olfactory once more into our spiritual lives. (No, not new-age aromatherapy or cheap joss sticks, but something far worthier and more mysterious.)
'If there are words for all the pastels in a huethe lavenders, mauves, fuchsias, plums, and lilacswho will name the tones and tints of a smell? It's as if we were hypnotised en masse and told selectively to forget. It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tonguesbut no closerand it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness'.
If a few shepherds caught that one winter night, as the old French carol has it
Quelle est cette odeur agréable,
surely we shall sense it everywhere round us this joyful Eastertide. Just sniff ...
See you next Sunday.
Last updated: 6 April 2002