"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, July 27, 2015

Does Heaven Smell Better than Hell?

I remember once attending a very spikey (did only Canadian Anglicans use that odd term to describe the highest of high-church Anglo-Catholic liturgics?) Evensong and Benediction presided over by the local bishop who said of St. Barnabas in Ottawa and its lavish use of incense "At least here you know you are in a church thanks to the smell," a reference, I thought, to the often indistinguishable modern, purpose-built churches of cinder block that look like some hideous hybrid between an office block and a Soviet hydro station, lacking any distinguishing signs or smells of divine worship. (Speaking of which, as a would-be collector of incense, I found this website has fantastically fast service and a wonderfully wide collection of some really delightful and outstanding incense.)

The role of smell has fascinated me for a long time. In the 1990s I did extensive traveling (five of seven continents, as it turned out) and I remember being on an ecumenical trip thousands of miles from home and going for an evening stroll with some of my colleagues. Some smell or other in the wind instantly transported me back home and evoked still-sore memories of a girl I had then been dating until recently.

Why does the olfactory sense have such power? That question came up in a book whose hardback version has been out for nearly a decade, and was very favorably reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. Now the University of California Press tells me a more affordable paperback version is forthcoming this September of a fascinating book from the Orthodox scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (U Cal Press, 2015), 448pp.

About this book we are told:

This book explores the role of bodily, sensory experience in early Christianity (first – seventh centuries AD) by focusing on the importance of smell in ancient Mediterranean culture. Following its legalization in the fourth century Roman Empire, Christianity cultivated a dramatically flourishing devotional piety, in which the bodily senses were utilized as crucial instruments of human-divine interaction. Rich olfactory practices developed as part of this shift, with lavish uses of incense, holy oils, and other sacred scents. At the same time, Christians showed profound interest in what smells could mean. How could the experience of smell be construed in revelatory terms? What specifically could it convey? How and what could be known through smell? Scenting Salvation argues that ancient Christians used olfactory experience for purposes of a distinctive religious epistemology: formulating knowledge of the divine in order to yield, in turn, a particular human identity.

Using a wide array of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources, Susan Ashbrook Harvey examines the ancient understanding of smell through religious rituals, liturgical practices, mystagogical commentaries, literary imagery, homiletic conventions; scientific, medical, and cosmological models; ascetic disciplines, theological discourse, and eschatological expectations. In the process, she argues for a richer appreciation of ancient notions of embodiment, and of the roles the body might serve in religion.

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