Last week I was taking a walk for a bit of exercise on my day off. I was trucking along when all of a sudden a fragrance hit me – the smell of honeysuckle. I stuttered to a stop just so I could inhale the scent a little longer. Honeysuckle is one of those scents that takes me back to a happy place in my childhood. You see, every June when I was growing up, my family would travel to the mountains of North Carolina for the Annual Conference of the United Methodist Western North Carolina Conference. The conference lasted a few days at the end of the week, but our family would go up on the Monday before and make the week our annual vacation. Lake Junaluska holds many fond memories for me – canoeing on the Lake, crafts at the childcare center, swimming in the pool, feeding ducks, and in general enjoying the beauty of the property. All those memories are triggered by the smell of honeysuckle, whose blooming always coincided with Annual Conference, forever connecting the smell with the memories.
Smell has a powerful way of connecting us to memories. The smell of your favorite food that your mom used to make, the cologne or perfume of your first crush, the scent of baby oil, the aroma of coffee, or the smell of a campfire: all of these smells have the ability to halt time for us and take us back to a place of warm, fond memories. The scents conjure up people or places that made us happy and shaped our lives. Though we rarely hold those memories actively in our everyday lives, a simple scent can bring a smile to our faces as those memories bubble up in our minds.
One of the things that I love about Episcopal Church is the way that the Church engages all the senses: the sight of the cross, the touch of hands passing the peace, the sound of psalms being chanted, or the taste of communion. Of course, as someone formed in “high church” worship, incense is the smell I associate with church. When I was in seminary, I served in a church that used a lot of incense – I could smell it in my hair when I came home, I could smell it in my vestments when I put them on before services, and I could even sometimes smell it when the church was empty and dark, the incense still lingering in the walls. Anytime I smell incense now, it has a calming effect on me. Without thinking, I take a deep breath, and somehow am transported to memories of my experience with the holy – at churches, at monasteries, on retreat. I have considered several times getting a home incense kit for devotions, just to help me connect to those memories.
Though many churches shy away from incense, what I like about incense is that the smell plants in our memories experiences with the holy. Much like the fond memories of childhood, fond memories of church can help shape us and give us grounding throughout life. The next time you are in church, I invite you to consider what smells might help ground you throughout the week. Maybe it is the scent of holy wine, maybe the smell of extinguished candles, or maybe even the smell of weathered pages in a BCP or hymnal. Whatever the scent, allow its power to reconnect you with God and transport you to a place where you knew God loved you and cared for you beyond measure.