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Hallo again to all.

In her 1990 book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman begins by quoting Helen Keller:

Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odours of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odours, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.*

Whatever might be the neurobiological process by which scent transports our mind through space and time, the phenomenon is real, and our other senses can sometimes accomplish the same thing (though none so dramatically and forcefully as smell, it would seem). Melodies from our early childhood — perhaps a song we heard our mother sing when she hung linen on the clothesline to dry or a radio jingle advertising breakfast cereal — seem to move our attention to a kinder and gentler part of our life. Most of us seem to remember our childhoods as safe and idyllic and happy (even if that's not so, most people seem to remember it that way), but we suspect that if we studied this scientific field in more depth we'd find that there is an equally powerful effect of revisiting childhood fears and trauma. A reptile, presumably with a reptilian brain

Our lay understanding of these processes is that they trigger the limbic system — called sometimes the 'reptilian brain' — and bypass the parts of our brain that read and think and plan. We can no more prevent ourselves from responding to a noticed smell than we can avoid having our leg twitch when the doctor tests our reflexes with a little rubber hammer.

Recent research suggests that nearly everyone has some amount of synesthesia, the mixing of the senses, though very few are aware of it. But it seems that music and scent and art and touch all swirl 'round inside us, less separate than biology textbooks would have us believe. Every one of our senses can fill us with the happiness or pain of our childhood by yanking us down some limbic neural path.

Our Anglican world has for centuries been populated with argument and conflict about what the church should be. Our three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason has two legs planted in the past and one leg planted in the present. We hear arguments that 'In the past we did it this way' or 'It should be done the way it has always been done'. The word 'Tradition' refers to the past.

The Past. But which past is The past? Last week? Last year? Your childhood? My childhood? The early years of my country? The year my favourite hymn was written? We've found that if we dive into a discussion with someone who wants 'to do things as they've always been done', and press for details about what they really mean, that 'always been' refers to that person's childhood, or memories of childhood. The hymns we sang when I was six years old. The flavour of incense that my parish used and the musty smell of the old wooden beams before they rotted out and had to be replaced with laminated composites. The feel of the rough wood on the back of the next pew. And those hymns and that musty smell are important, because they transport that person to a safe past kindly remembered.

We suspect that this is why someone pushing to return to the past in church is rarely interested in winding time backwards past his own childhood. Pushing for 'the old hymns' never means 'the really really old hymns', it means 'the hymns I sang when I was a child'. But since these feelings appear to involve reptilian memory and not conscious thought processes, it's not going to work to discuss or argue. So these disagreements, about what the parish and church and liturgy should be, are going to go on forever and are never going to be resolved. Sometimes these disagreements are fun, though, but they're not worth losing friends or alienating others.

See you next week. Just as we always have.

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Last updated: 4 February 2007
URL: http://anglicansonline.org

*Keller, Helen. The World I Live In. New York: The Century Co., 1908, p66.

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