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The Miliky WayHallo again to all.

It is, for much of the Anglican world, the Sunday after All Saints: a glorious day that joins, quite explicitly, the living and the dead. The communion of saints seems to us, if we dare to picture it, as a sort of infinite double helix, a shining spiral braid of the blessed — luminescence without end.

Although we often associate saints with light, 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.

In a matter-of-factly titled but haunting essay — Perfume and the Memory of War — the author, Erin Solaro, writes:

Scent is, or should be, part of more than individual memory. Like wine, scent is part of cultural memory. And of historical memory. People sometimes have the opportunity to drink very old wine. Imagine pouring a vintage made from grapes picked by men who went off to die in the Great War, better known to us as World War I, and by the women who had no choice but to watch them go. Almost instinctively, we feel a bond. Almost instinctively, we want to drink to them. Yet we do not think of perfume this way. ... We know we drink to the long-ago dead, but we rarely perfume ourselves in their honor.

Linking the creation of scent to the culture and time in which it is created, she sees fragrance as mysteriously embodying history. In the twentieth century, the deep sorrows of the world wars and the end of a civilisation bred perfumes as great as they were deeply sad. Light through dark

We thought about all this on this gleaming white Sunday after All Saints, all shot through with clarity and purity and robes of whiteness. Given our own broken and bedeviled Anglican Communion, we've found it harder this year to be uncomplicatedly joyful in the octave of All Saints. Whatever the communion has been, it will not be again. There are those who see it as becoming something better, more defined, more coherent. There are those who see it as shattering, the invisible but quite real ties being supplanted by mechanism and canonical machinery.

If there is a fragrance abroad in the communion, it is one of sadness. It cannot be solely myrrh, for that is of the grave. The communion as we have known it may die, but it will live again in some fashion. The scent cannot be simple. No flower will do. Nor citrus. Nor woody amber. Rather a scent of complexity and greatness. The writer of Perfume and the Memory of War describes a scent for this time in the life of the Anglican Communion:

For those who have been lucky enough to smell it, Djedi [by Jacques Guerlain] is the strangest perfume ever created, and often the most beautiful.

It opens with scents of stone and mineral. One might think of camel thorn bleaching in the desert sun, or smoke rising into the desert sky. Then it opens into rose and iris, vetiver and spice, beautiful and brief, before melding into leather and bitter herbs, and musk that is both animal and powdery and that to some people smells of roasting meat. One might, if one is so inclined, think of burning tanks and what happens to the crew inside, or of dead infantrymen. Indeed, some people note a scent of putrefaction, even of feces.

The overwhelming impressions of Djedi are of a regal beauty that is conquered by terrible grief, a beauty that does not stoop to weeping or pleading, but is broken to standing ruins like a shattered sword.

If we are living in the ruins of the Anglican Communion, then, for heaven's sake, we should do so 'as sorrowing and yet alwaye merry', as Tyndale has it. So many saints have taught us that! We can rightly grieve, yet get on with the work we've each been given to do, to love and serve the Lord in our time; to advance the Kingdom of Heaven as much as we are able. But some of us may just do so with a slight fragrance of Djedi round about.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 4 November 2007

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