Incense

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This was in response to a free write for the prompt scent in the theme of comfort. In other words, write about a scent that gives you comfort.

​I would not have expected to be writing about incense being a comforting scent. I was never a fan of incense. Perhaps, it was the specific scents that I was exposed to. Perhaps, it was Allan, who lived across the hall from me in my first year in college who used it to mask his pot smoking. At the time, I was so naive that I didn’t realize that’s what it was for. I thought he was just kind of dopey and laid back, and the incense was just him being a late blooming hippie.

Either way, the smell of it was enough to put me off both pot and incense.

When I visited church for the first time that they used incense was probably around Advent, maybe Christmas Eve. I remember the sounds of that day more than I remember the smells. Our music director is an amazing musician, and it is a joy to listen to his carols before the Christmas Eve Mass. I don’t know if there was incense that night, but I know that it’s been there as the liturgical season warranted.

Every Tuesday, the Host is incensed and a hymn is sung before adoration. I try to watch the smoke rise until it dissipates on its way to the skylight. I try ot make sense of the shapes it makes and the directions it flows in, but usually it just goes, and I continue to meditate on it.

After the Mass of Christian burial, the casket is incensed on its way out of the church to the burial or interment. 

The incense is carried in a bowl through the church during the Sunday procession during Lent. I know it is offered up with a solemn hymn that just touches me deeply. The whole process of the incense rising, the low singing of the prayer, the hush that falls over everything. It is very similar at Advent.

During one of the RCIA rites, I was standing in the back with the other catechumens while we waited together for our time to bring our oils to the altar. It may have been the rite of welcome, or perhaps, during the Holy Thursday Mass. I can’t remember at the moment, but I do remember looking to the front of the church where the incense was being carried, and i distinctly saw the smoke rise and form the shape of a Jewish Star of David. It was one of many signs that I received that I was making the right decision to go down the path of conversion.

While at first, the smell bothered me, the more I became engrossed in the Catholic liturgy and ritual, the more comfortable I became with the scents and the smells of the church and the incense.

I would not expect it during a service, and then I would smell it, and a warmth would come over me, a comfort, and it reminded me of what I found in the church, but not so much in the building but in the pews.

As we are often told, we are the church, and I find a small part of myself floating through the air along with the incense.

Incense

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Incense is a large part of Catholic ritual. Two years ago at my Holy Thursday Mass I was standing in the back of the church waiting for the procession. I was to carry the oil of catechumen. I had spent the previous two years looking for signs and when I looked toward the front, I watched the incense rise and rise and then as it fell again in twisting spirals of smoke, its wisps joined into the shape of a Star of David. And then it was gone. I had received my sign.

Breathing in the incense at not only last night’s Holy Thursday Mass, but nearly every time I have seems to transport me to the ancient times and lands of my people. I haven’t gone anywhere but it’s drier, it’s sandy and my mind can’t help but wonder how these rituals and beliefs got started. History is an amazing thing. FAith is also. There is something about the scent of the incense traveling through my nose, reminding me of a place I’ve never been, but will always belong to.

Smoke and Sunlight

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I never know what I’m going to find on any given day at Mass. Some days, I’m not looking for anything and I get hit with all kinds of feelings. One example of that is from the place that I always sit, when the window is open across the entire chapel, I can see the tree trunk with a few branches and green leaves. In the rainy weather, this looks as though I’m looking through the window into Wales and it makes me feel things.

On the first day that I went to sit and pray alone in the pew, a light filtered in as the two o’clock bell chimed and my heart became lighter and I was satisfied that everything I had been worrying about and praying about would be alright. Not perhaps the way that I wanted, but alright none the same.

Sometimes, the smell of the incense catches me off-guard and I feel things.

And sometimes, I feel nothing unusual but the day’s stories and Gospel, and that’s okay too.

Today was a day like those.

It is an anniversary of something very horrible. The one thing I like to do is to be a comfort to people. It is what comforts me; if I can help in that way. Today, as usual, that is how I start out and then I am comforted instead. I feel as though I’m doing it wrong, but then I realize there’s really no wrong way to do that sort of thing. We are all muddling through on our way to what feels right and sometimes we sacrifice what feels right to us to make it right for someone else.

This morning, I sat in Mass, wondering if I should tell my friends about the significance of today’s anniversary. It can be rather awkward talking about a murdered friend to people who didn’t know her or who I hadn’t told, and I still wasn’t sure. In addition to that, our regular priest was out of town at a favorite uncle’s funeral, so there was a substitute priest. He was a lovely man, who walked with the help of a cane and the man in charge of the Eucharist, and I expected that despite his large size, seemingly larger in the vestments, he would be fragile, quiet-voiced, reverent.

He was not.

Well, he was reverent. You could hear it in his voice, how much he enjoyed the worship, how much he wanted to celebrate Mass with us, but his voice – oh my! It was a booming voice. I think he might not have needed the microphone. He did things a little differently; who knows when he had retired from actively serving the church, but he was pleased. He had a slight accent that I couldn’t place – might have been Spanish or Italian, honestly, it was something and it gave his cadence a little Southwestern lilt. Actually, yes, like California or Arizona – that mix of English, Native languages and Spanish.

Before he came out from the sacristy, we were sitting and my seatmate, A, found a cup of coffee left under the pew. She went to throw it away before the service started and on her way back she walked behind me to return to her seat. Along her walk, she put her hand on my shoulder and slid it across my back to my other shoulder. When I looked back at her, she smiled at me. There are some moments that you don’t know you need until they happen. I needed that touch. Touch is very important to me, especially during the Mass when my hand is squeezed and we shake hands and sometimes kiss, and hold my hands during the Our Father prayer.

I don’t know how she knew that I needed that touch right at that moment. I also don’t know if it kept me from bursting into tears or started the little welling up that my eyes did end up doing.

At the very end of the Tuesday’s Mass, they prepare the cross for the adoration and this includes incense. I couldn’t smell it this time and for a moment I hadn’t realized that he was using the incense. The Father had done things out of order from the way this parish is used to it, but I could see the smoke rising and when it crossed paths with the dusty rays of sun coming in through the skylight it seemed to float, continuing to rise and widen.

Higher and higher until it could go no further up, then it just stopped, suspended their above the cross. I watched it, trying to find meaning in the blobs of shapes that it had formed, but I saw nothing of note, but still I stared. I could feel the wonder and the half smile on my lips, and I didn’t have long to wait. The ceremony was over, everyone was getting ready for the last moments, the announcement of the end of Mass and to go out and proclaim the Good News, and then the smoke began to drift.

It floated down and down and dissipated when it touched the sunlight again.

This is one of the places that I see Brittany; feel Brittany.

A lot of times these moments are sad, but some of them, like this one let me remember the faith that she always had, not necessarily a religious faith, but a faith in people and eventually in herself and it shone, and it is that memory that I want for myself, not just of her, but also to give to myself: the faith that no matter what happens, I can still push forward as long as I have that faith in myself. It’s still a long way to go for me, but as long as I move in the right direction, I’m still moving.