Wednesday, October 16, 2019

On Sense and Incense: sensuality and religious practice


I love the smell of frankincense in the morning. The sense of smell is the most primordial. It is said to have the strongest link to memory. Perhaps the smell of our mothers is the first memory we ever make.

In the morning I burn frankincense on my prayer altar at home, and it reminds me of church. My prayer corner is a little bubble of church. I sit down in front of it and I am no longer mentally in my apartment. I am not thinking my usual job and errand shaped thoughts. My eyes are drawn to the eyes of the icons. I sit in the gaze of Christ.

I am an impulsive person and I have a hard time keeping a routine. Many times I have failed to stick to a goal of daily prayer or meditation. But I love to light the incense and the candles. Instead of forcing myself into the routine, I am drawn into it by my sense of delight. When I used to be a Buddhist, my longest streak of daily meditation coincided with the period when I had built a similar altar with a statue of Buddha replacing the icon of Christ.

Growing up in a church tradition with "four bare walls and a sermon", who would have thought that frankincense or myrrh were real things? I remember reading the words in the Bible, describing the gifts the magi made to the child Christ. But there was always this unbridgeable gulf between the present and the past. The past had temples and gold and incense and priests. We had cheap carpet, low-slung ceilings, business suits, and boring sermons. Our aesthetic universe was 1950s Americana. I would not have thought to question that it could be otherwise.

But in Orthodoxy there is no break between past and present. The church grows forward through time like a tree rooted in the ancient world. If you dropped a modern orthodox in a church service in the imperial heart of Constantinople in 400 A.D., he would follow along without missing a beat. He would be delighted to see the liturgy celebrated by Archbishop John Chrysostom, a gifted homilist who wrote the liturgy we still use today. The roots of church practices stretch even deeper - drawing inspiration from ancient Jewish liturgies. That same orthodox time-traveler would not feel completely lost in a Jewish temple service, though he might draw puzzled looks if he reflexively made the sign of the cross.

I find the ancient church to be surprising and delightful. It is like living in a 2,000 year old treehouse. The history of the church is inscribed on the walls, in the icons and architecture. A natural question, "who is in that icon?" leads to a chapter of the story of the church in the world or a lesson in theology. My interest in reading icons has led me to learn the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets (invented by our Saints Cyril and Methodius, the "Apostles to the Slavs" in the 800s AD).

For most of my life I didn't even know that this kind of church was an option. In America, it seems to be a secret. And yet something like it was the norm for the majority of Christian history.

In my childhood religious experience, I was starved of beauty. Beauty was a factor that once drew me to Tibetan Buddhism. As an orthodox, I feel like a starving man who has been invited into a banquet.

I've been meaning to write and talk about my journey to Christianity over the past 18 months or so. Converting to Christianity is a strange thing to do for a modern man, especially one in my social circles (Buddhist, hippie, techie, San Franciscan). I hope some readers might be inspired by my journey. And I know some people will judge me to be stupid or deluded. I accept that.

The journey had an intellectual and an emotional component. It is a continuing journey of discovery that I suspect has no end. The emotional piece felt like falling in love. I fell in love with many facets of the church - the monastics, the historic continuity, the mystical theology. And one of the things I fell in love with was the sensuality of the church. My love, she is beautiful.


I remember the first time I saw someone prostrating, that is kneeling down and touching his head to the ground. He was a monk in long black robes and it was during a pre-dawn, candlelit service at the moment of the consecration of the Eucharist. I wanted to try it, but I felt too awkward. My mental habits were still too modern. After being around people prostrating enough times I worked up the courage to try it. When the initial awkwardness passed, I felt a sense of peace. In prostrating to God my body is implicitly teaching me about God and my relationship to him. Perhaps the peace I felt is because I had found a God worth prostrating to.

Orthodox worship emphasizes the majesty of God. The pageantry, the bowing, the kneeling, and etc. feels strange to a modern American. But a medieval peasant would recognize immediately the aesthetic universe that we are in - this is how you act in front of a monarch. The words we use in worship are applied to monarchs; "your majesty", "your grace" and "your worship" were forms of address for one. The design of the Orthodox church and its liturgy is to place us in the throne room of God with the Trinity enthroned as the monarch of the universe.

In this world of flattened hierarchies, there is a relief to finding something majestic and worthy of worship. It might even be a necessity for a good life. From a secular and symbolic perspective, Jordan Peterson identifies the concept of God with a person's highest human ideal. One could argue that everybody has a God, whether they know it or not.

I imagine the objection of some readers. Isn't it shallow to focus on aesthetics? Isn't the core of religion an intellectual activity? Isn't it about belief and instruction?

First, much of the aesthetics of the church are also instructional. In the early days of the church, most laity were illiterate Roman citizens and slaves, and the icons and hymns were used as teaching aids to instruct people in the Bible and church history.

But the ritual practices are not primarily for instructing the mind. Their purpose is to instruct the heart.


I read a book recently by James K.A. Smith about the power of habit and repeated activities to shape our desires ("You Are What You Love"). The main thrust of the book is that repeated activities that shape our desires are called "liturgies", and our life is full of liturgies, conscious and unconscious. Checking twitter is a liturgy. I'm on a twitter fast, and I intensely feel how twitter usage has shaped my desire.

There is a vein of Christianity that rejects ritual practices that do not directly instruct the conscious mind, cutting out anything other than preaching, praying, and singing. It judges these other practices as unnecessary vain repetitions or superstitions.  I grew up in one such church. This kind of church life carries with it an implicit model of what a human being is. The human is primarily a mind, and so religion is about putting the right things in that mind.

This is the dominant kind of thinking that shaped American culture and our view of religion. We think that if you want to know a religion, the most important thing is to study its beliefs. That's certainly how I was trained to see the world.

James K.A. Smith is a different kind of protestant, the kind that calls himself a small-c "catholic" and sees value in re-embracing some liturgical practices of big-C Catholicism and older brands of Protestantism. He's even favorable to incense use in church! In focusing too much on the mind, he estimates that many churches miss the role of liturgical repetition in shaping the heart. Given all the secular and commercial liturgies we are exposed to, it is necessary to fill our lives with counter-liturgies to bring us back to God. It seems to me that he's on the right track.

I wish him luck in shaping a movement of more powerful and rooted churches. Secular modernity is waxing and the church is waning. Now is the time to grow our roots deep.

In reading Smith's book I reflected on just how many physical, repetitive and embodied practices we have in the Orthodox church to shape our minds and desires.

  • When we kiss the icons, we teach ourselves that Christ and the saints are precious things
  • When we cross ourselves, we remember that we are marked people of God
  • The liturgical calendar reminds us annually of the important events of our faith. The 12 major feast days and the many minor ones mark the passage of time. Time itself is inscribed in the life of Christ.
  • The human brain has special structures dedicated to facial recognition and processing. Seeing the faces of holy people in icons brings them to life and our minds build a relationship with them.
  • Lighting candles teaches us that we can pray even when we don't have words 
  • Bowing, kneeling, and prostrating teach us the majesty of God
  • Incense during worship produces an instant visceral portal back into the mental space of holiness and provides a demarkation between the sacred and the profane. Sacred music does the same thing.
  • When we fast, we learn how to control our desires, and that small sacrifices are not to be feared. "It is not a sin not to fast, but fasting teaches us how not to sin."
  • Fasting together creates a shared bond as a congregation... as does feasting together at the end of a fast.

In answer to the more severe kinds of Christian that might criticize these tools and practices as unnecessary, I would agree with them. They aren't strictly necessary. Christ was a wandering rabbi, and his followers were mostly poor. The early Christians met in secret in underground graves, not in grand temples. However, though they are not necessary, they are useful. The practices and tools of ancient Christianity are an inheritance that has been built over time and passed down to us. Shouldn't we be grateful for the full inheritance and put it to use? Some of those pieces don't fit modern tastes, but should we change our practices to fit in?

I am 36 years old and I am not that great at being me. But I am better than I was. As I learn to navigate myself, I am learning the importance of my body. It has a strong hand on the rudder, to the frequent consternation of my mind. I am trying to live a good life one day at a time. And each of those days start with the smell of incense.

About me: I'm just a beginner, a recently baptized member of the Eastern Church. I'm pretty excited about it at the moment, and I like to share things I like. Please forgive me if I unintentionally say anything that misleads or offends.