Cathblog - Scentsory perception at Mass


You know what no one talks about when they talk about the Mass? The panoply of scents, the plethora of sensory adventures through the doors of your nose, the layered and complex and lovely subtle messages you smell in Mass.

For instance: the sweet intricate tendrils of incense, and the cheerfully dank aura of raincoats and moist jackets and dripping umbrellas by the door; and the faint talcumpowdery smell of the three babies in attendance; and the sharp abrupt smell of matches and lighters as candles are lit; and the ancient dignified redolence of the wooden walls and the wooden organ and the wooden pews; and the faintest hint of mothballs and incense and cigar smoke as Father sails up the aisle like a battleship draped in layers of linen and cotton; and the deep tang of the wine and sturdy floury tastelessness of the wafer; and the leathery friendly aftershaveish smell of your neighbor as he shakes your hand; and the sweet blast of perfume from your other neighbor as she shakes your hand; and the shaggy musky popcornish teenager scents as you hug your lanky sons, not yet fully awake even yet; and the coolest scent of all, the honey cinnamon iris coffee beach scent of your lovely and mysterious bride, as you kiss her, yes, kiss her, right in the middle of Mass, before all these people, because you wish her well, and you wish her peace, and she somehow got the boys out of bed and into the car, you do not know how, for she is short and they are long, but here you all are in the pew, smelling the hundred miraculous smells that have so much to do with the deep pleasure and savor of the Mass.

Such as: the happy oily reek of doughnuts stacked in the lobby, awaiting attack from children who come in waves the second Father sails past them on his way down the aisle, so that he appears to be followed by a troop of children, bouncing behind him like brightly colored balls; and the blunt workmanlike scent of coffee in urns that appear to have been purchased from the Defense Department after the First World War; and the bookish dusty serious smell of the tiny library of missals and Spiritual Literature and songbooks and even, God bless me, the collected works of Anton Chekhov for some reason; and the scent of the vast moist copse of cedar trees across the street, a scent that blows through the lobby like a tide whenever someone opens the door of the church; and the incomprehensible trustworthy graceful scent of Father as he shakes hands and hugs children by the door; he smells like grandfathers and apples, as one of my small Sunday School students once said, and indeed he does.

The Mass is a work of quotidian genius in so many gentle human ways, and for all we laud and bow at the miracle in it, perhaps the deeper miracle even than the Quiet Guest who arrives midway is the sweet shuffling redolent gathering itself – the miracle of it.

We collect, we rise and subside, we sing and chant, we tell stories at the table around the meal, we shake hands and kiss and hug and laugh.

The scents and sounds and touches braid and weave and stitch something quietly astounding, every day, in a thousand languages, all over the world.

This morning, with the scents of rain and cedar and babies and cigars and aftershave and cinnamon and sweat and coffee and apples and trust in my nose, I say thanks.


Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, Oregon, USA. His most recent book os Grace Notes, a collection of spiritual essays.

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