Scent, Memory, and Worship

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Last year in Nashville I bought some pumpkin and caramel scented candles. For the next few weeks our home was filled with a smell that, in my mind, will forever be associated with Hutchmoot. While I burned my candles mercilessly, my daughter saved a small one and kept it in her room. A few weeks ago she burned it for a couple of hours, blew it out and then accidentally knocked it over, leaving a pool of thick amber wax to spread across her desk. As the oils seeped into the tiny cracks in the wood the fragrance filled the entire room, pouring out into the corridor and down the staircase. For days, every time I walked past her room, regardless of my mood, my task or the time of day, the waves of caramel pumpkin swirl involuntarily drew my thoughts to Hutchmoot.

There is a link between memory and smell that is impossible to override. The faintest perfume of a certain flower can transport you instantly back to your childhood. The sharp, sterile blend of disinfectant and warm air drags you against your will to a hospital room you would rather forget, awakening pangs of anxiety or sadness you have tried so hard to bury.

Even in the hardest hearts and the darkest moments the right scent is powerful enough to awaken longing.

Heidi Johnston

Some days there is nothing more comforting than opening my parents’ front door and finding myself cocooned in the smell that is particular to their house. Maybe it’s the blend of washing detergent, my Dad’s aftershave, the constant baking and the subtle lingering presence of furniture polish. Whatever it is, it smells like home.

This deep, involuntary link between smell and memory is something we cannot switch off. Over-riding choice, it bypasses our stubborn, cynical defences and compels us to remember. I wonder if this is why God’s design for worship in the Old Testament was always such a sensory experience? Nauseating, metallic blood pooled around the altar. Acrid smoke rose from the sacrifices. Thick, heady incense burned continually in the tabernacle. Each of these strong, distinct smells created associations in the mind of the Israelites, blending to form an inescapable call to worship. Whether they liked it or not.

In the Gospels we read about another time when worship and fragrance went hand in hand. Just a few days before his crucifixion, moved by overwhelming gratitude and love, Mary broke a priceless jar of perfume and poured it over Jesus. John 12 v 3 tells us that the smell of the perfume was so strong that it “filled the house.” There is great debate about this incident, if in fact it was just one incident, but one thing is clear: as Jesus left the house the perfume went with him. Once the concentrated oil soaked into skin and hair and cloth the smell would have lasted for days.

I don’t know whether Jesus would have changed or washed His clothes in the short period between this intimate anointing and the time of his arrest and crucifixion. Either way, I don’t think it’s a wild overstatement to suggest that the smell of the oil continued to cling to him as he entered Jerusalem on the donkey. Like kings before him, his triumphal entry was perfumed by the smell of spikenard, immediately conjuring up pictures of kingship and majesty in the minds of onlookers, creating a sensory echo of their shouted proclamation, “Hail Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Perhaps even in the garden, mingled with the olives and the warm night air, the scent of the oil was present. As the soldiers moved in to take hold of Jesus, did the familiar smell cause their minds to wander for just a moment to something greater than their own short-lived authority? Is it possible that even as they stripped and beat him, his torn and bleeding flesh still carried the faintest scent of royalty?

Even in the hardest hearts and the darkest moments the right scent is powerful enough to awaken longing. I have been wondering lately whether there is a way to harness this deeply instinctive connection. A way to tie our inner selves to memories of God’s word, to his faithfulness and to worship, in a way that is gentle yet intentional.

I’m not sure how it would look practically but I can’t help wondering what would happen if our times of intimacy with God, whether alone, as families or even in our churches were in some way linked to fragrances that, in darker times, would draw us back to the memory of intimacy with God. Would stubborn children, drifting far from the things they learned at home, deaf to the pleas of heartbroken parents, find themselves broken by a familiar smell and the wave of longing that came in its wake? Would we, in our days of self-satisfied arrogance, be reminded of the God who once filled our hearts to overflowing?

Maybe I could choose to have the same flowers regularly in the place I tend to go to meet with God? Could it mean choosing to burn a particular scent of candle in the background at times when your family sit around God’s word together, so that the chosen fragrance becomes a marker farther down the road? Some of you may already have your own well-established rhythms in this area. I know that in some traditions fragrance and scent play a larger part than they do in my own and I’d love to know how that works. Does it impact you? Is it something you are consciously aware of? Are there particular fragrances that stir up memories for you? Has a certain fragrance ever triggered a memory that has stirred you to worship?

I’m captivated by the possibility of setting in place these invisible markers for my future self. Of reaching forward to gently touch my children’s hearts with a familiar hope. I don’t know if these links between scent and memory can be intentionally formed but if God has planted this deeply rooted connection within us then perhaps it’s worth considering?

Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.


9 Comments

  1. Brenda Nuland

    This is beautiful. When my children were still at home, we attended a historical reinactment most Autumns. Wherever I am, the aroma of woodsmoke takes me back to misty Octobers on the Wabash, buffalo burgers, hot apple cider, and family.

  2. David Mitchel

    @dmitchel

    John the Evangelist particularly linked events with scents. I’ve always loved that phrase in John’s account of the anointing at Bethany: “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The smell of a charcoal fire attended Peter’s repeated denials of Jesus; the charcoal fire scent also attended Jesus’s thrice-repeated “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Scent, plus repetition. The two events would have been linked in memory; “his grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”

    This is a lovely post, and an outstanding concluding proposal about deliberately tapping into the scent-memory connection. Thank you.

  3. Libby Shortt

    @libshortt

    I really love your writing Heidi. Every time I have read one of your pieces, I have come away being challenged and blessed. Thank you!

    Both my grandmothers passed away last year, and I’ve been realizing how much I associate certain smells with them. My Mammaw always cooked for us, and I can’t smell potatoes frying without thinking of her. My Grandma Jane lived at a lake, and we spent wonderful summer days swimming and playing in the lake. It’s a distinct, but wonderful smell to me.

    Thank you for bringing our five senses into your descriptions of God’s Word. It brings it to life. Thank you again!

  4. John Covil

    Speaking for my own experience, I often wonder how much we in lower-church Protestantism have over-corrected for what has been seen as mere affectation (if not much worse). While I think there are very valid concerns about iconography and the reliance on rituals, have we lost some God-ordained ways to worship? Is the worship shown in the Bible as austere to the physical senses as we usually make it?

  5. April Pickle

    @hildamae

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post, Heidi. I have a friend who says there were so many roses at her mother’s funeral that for years the scent for her was a reminder of sadness.
    If our Lord smelled like royalty at his death, I’m wondering if, in addition to being a reminder of his kingship and an inspiration to long for what was to come, the scent also became a reminder of the horror of crucifixion.
    Added to this smell, the Gospel of John tells us that myrrh and aloes, seventy-five pounds worth, were used in the wrapping of his body, as was common. I’m guessing lots of folks associated those particular smells with dead bodies and funerals.
    I wonder what Jesus smelled like at his resurrection. I wonder if that glorified body smelled like the shroud — a mixture of perfume, myrrh and aloes. I wonder if those scents of royalty, horror and death also became part of the smell of resurrection, of joy, of hope, of everlasting life.

  6. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Brilliant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been smoking my pipe on a bench in some random city when people have literally stopped in their tracks and told me with a wistful smile how much the smell reminded them of their grandfathers or fathers. We do this with music, too. Whenever the Petersons go on a family holiday we try to listen to one particular album over and over so that years later those same songs bring to mind that particular place. Whenever music from Riders in the Sky comes on we’re thrust into Yellowstone National Park. When we hear the first Colony House record we’re suddenly driving through Sweden together at midsummer. Thanks for the post, Heidi!

  7. Karoline

    @karolinedawn

    This was a great post to read after a somewhat long absence from RR. Thank you, Heidi! Such beautiful thoughts, of Jesus’s scent after Mary anointed him, of the richly scented rituals in the Old Testament… I’ll be pondering this all day, and probably much longer!

  8. Adam

    Beautiful post.

    This might sound wacky, but have you ever considered the thought that scents might not come from the objects, but that they are actually pneumonic devices that our brains create? What I mean is, when I pull out a pan of cinnamon toast, is the scent you pick up the same as the one that I do? Does cinnamon really have a smell, or is “cinnamon” something that exists only in our brains? How did scents and memory form such a strong relationship? I’m probably wrong on this, but it’s a fun thought.

    Once again, great post.

  9. matthew h. clark

    Wonderful post dealing with a subject that resonates with many/most of us on some level and one that we all can in someway or another glean from.  My son read this and shared it with me and I thought to comment briefly that all of humanity can and does relate to this and it can be positive or negative (though in my experience mostly positive) on a purely human secular level.  But, I think to take it further and sort of using John Covil’s comment as a launching pad this should be taken to all levels of life and especially to the highest which is the Heavenly Realm (spiritual life).  Historically and Biblically we are a people created in God’s image and are living to see that likeness restored.  He, our God, has not made us numb, but, rather feeling.  Meaning He gave us senses: smell, touch, taste, hearing, etc.  Something that has deeply infiltrated Christianity after the Protestant Reformation was this neo-platonic philosophy that matter is somehow bad.  This idea that we are souls trapped in bodies is completely false and antithetical to historic Christian thought.

    In the old covenant (OT Israel) incense was used as were many other physical, visual things i.e.  images, rituals, vestments, etc., etc..  You know all those things that give us the willies!  What theology, or rather, Who’s theology do we or are we adhering to?  God commanded them to do these things!  Whats more, is something that the previous commenter John mentioned, Iconography.  Just think God gave the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments and we all know that second commandment (Exodus 20) says “Thou Shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…”  We all know the verse and how it condemns many of the Roman Catholic practices.  OK, fine, but what else?

    Yet five chapters later we see God then commanding his people to carve out Cherubim to sit atop of the Mercy Seat (the cover of the Ark of the Covenant)!!  So either God broke His own commandment or we haven’t/don’t understand the commandment rightly.  Also, remember God commanded Moses to to make a serpent atop a pole that would save them from death (Numbers 21:8-9) also (2 Chr. 3:10).  Solomon knew the commandments of God and yet we read in 1 Kings  6:23-7:29 there were images and icons all throughout the Temple.  An important fact to remember is that Jesus went regularly to the Temple to pray, calling it “a house of prayer” and having a deep “zeal for the temple” (Mk.11:15-17).

    A little sidelined (I realize) but, it is to maybe show that there is more to this than meets the eye; or the doctrinal confines of our particular denomination).  What does history show us regarding things of God, things of life, things of Church?  It is a holistic experience and one that is (not my opinion, but) history.  The people of God in the old covenant used innocence in worship and life.  The early church used incense in the first 1000 years before any doctrinal and/or ecclesiastical mishaps/errors.  It is Biblical: OT and New.  It signifies many things as prayers, the presence of God (Ex 30:1-9, Rev. 8:3-4, & 5:8) etc., etc..  And it does in Church what it does in our “secular” lives as well,  just more.  It’s deeper, richer, more real, because when we pray, when we worship- that is who we are meant to be!  We, Christians, are image bearers, icons of our God who touches and saves us wholly and fully in and through all of our senses…

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