Saturday, February 18, 2012

Incense: Scents and Sensibility

Here’s a great resource site: Smells and Bells. It deals primarily with...uh...smells (incense) and bells (sanctus bells). Matthew D. Herrera, owner the site, introduces the resources by noting:

I have prepared a pair of short booklets which explore the history and current use of incense and sanctus bells as powerful devotional aids in the Catholic Church.  I have also included a copy of Sacred Signs, a wonderful little work by the late Msgr. Romano Guardini, that should be of great interest to anyone with a love for Catholic liturgy. 

The booklets are packed with good information on these topics, and are available to anyone who wants to download and print them. Mr. Herrera invites us to do so:

If you have a desire to (re)introduce incense and sanctus bells into your parish, I would suggest printing and forwarding copies of my booklets to your pastor or parish administrator.  Perhaps even your bishop might enjoy copies for his library.  Please send the booklet with a short cover letter similar to the one I have included.  While I retain the copyright to both monographs I hereby give permission for their downloading and dissemination so long as they are not altered in any way or sold.  Please free to contact me with any questions or comments.  Thanks for visiting and Godspeed in your efforts. 

Visit the site to view the booklets, the letter he mentions, and his contact information.

In the meantime, I’ll address the use of incense, using excerpts from Mr. Herrera’s booklet available on the site. The booklet covers the history of the use of incense, biblical references to its use, types of incense, the how-to’s and the when-to’s, and even charcoal! It’s very complete. 

But the section on objections to the use of incense caught my attention.

I know from experience that many people – or at least a few who are very vocal – dislike incense at Mass, and do what they can to discourage its use.  Here are some excerpts on this subject from Mr. Herrera’s booklet (my emphases):

All too often the knee-jerk responses to complaints about the liturgical use of incense is to completely remove it from the celebration of the Mass. While the rubrics for the Ordinary Form of the Mass don’t require incense to be used, choosing to banish it altogether is an action that strips solemnity and historical continuity away from the Mass. There are far more positive ways of dealing with sensitivities to incense smoke.

The first step should be to catechize the faithful on the importance of incense and why incense has historically been part of the Mass. Most Catholics’ understanding of incense seems to stop at the ability of incense to mask unpleasant odors. All too often people complain about the use of incense simply because they don’t like the smell or because using it extends the Mass for a few minutes. A little education will often sooth their discomfort.

Catechesis on the subject may or may not change the most recalcitrant minds, but it would most likely help some to overcome their own objections or be less swayed by the unreasonable stance of others. Mr. Herrera’s booklet offers much in the way of this catechesis; I’ll touch on it below, but it’s well worth reading the entire booklet to get this information.

Next is to choose a type of incense that will be the least irritating to sensitive individuals. One must be certain to choose an all-natural, pure resin or oleoresin incense. White Copal is one example of a mild, all-natural pure resin incense that is very reasonably priced. The stronger frankincense and myrrh incenses are also good choice. One must however be careful to choose a brand that uses hypoallergenic essential oils in the blending process.
There must also be sensitivity to the fact that some blends – even those of high quality incense simply do not smell good to some people. This sensitivity seems particularly true in the Western World. Courteous feedback outside of the Mass should be encouraged and records kept of which blends are favored by the congregation and not simply a few individual.
(p. 18-19)

In an earlier section of the booklet, Mr. Herrera addresses the question “Why Do We Use Incense?” He makes the following points:

In the Old Testament God commanded His people to burn incense (Exodus 30:7, 40:27, etc.). Incense is a sacramental used to venerate, bless, and sanctify. Its smoke conveys a sense of mystery and awe. It is a reminder of the sweet smelling presence of our Lord. Its use adds a feeling of solemnity to the Mass. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell reinforce the transcendence of the Mass linking Heaven with Earth, allowing us to enter into the presence of God. It symbolizes the burning zeal of faith which should consume all Christians while the fragrance symbolizes Christian virtue.

[He quotes Msgr. Romano Guardini here.] “The offering of an incense is a generous and beautiful rite. The bright grains of incense are laid upon the red-hot charcoal, the censer is swung, and the fragrant smoke rises in clouds. In the rhythm and the sweetness there is a musical quality; and like music also is the entire lack of practical utility: it is a prodigal waste of precious material. It is a pouring out of unwithholding love.”

Incense and the smoke of burning incense have been offered as gifts to God and to others since ancient times. In a more practical visual sense as the fragrant smoke ascends it also symbolizes our prayers rising to Heaven

[Guardini again]: “The offering of incense is like Mary’s anointing (of Jesus) at Bethany. It is as free and objectless as beauty. It burns and is consumed like love that lasts through death. And the arid soul still takes his stand and asks the same question: What is the good of it?

It is the offering of a sweet savour which Scripture itself tells us is the prayers of the Satins. Incense is the symbol of prayer. Like pure prayer it has in view no object of its own; it asks nothing for itself. It rises like the Gloria at the end of a psalm in adoration and thanksgiving to God for his great glory.”
(p. 6)

Incense just makes sense! 

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