Friday, April 17, 2009

Mapping Scents of Spirituality

While I am sitting on my desk with the open window rushing in the fragrant air full with the blossoms of bigaradier and the trembling dew of spring on them, my elderflower cordial by my side, I am thinking of how this Good Friday reminds me of Good Fridays past, those of my formative years and the thoughts that accompanied them.

I recall as a teenager sitting on the old, wooden pew and smelling the luminous, Byzantine, old church. Not only the predictable incence smoking in the cencers; neither the peeling varnish off the old egg tempera icons, nor the slight mustiness of the corners of the rugs on the floor where feet slightly wet from the spring showers had walked on; not even the flowers garlanding the "epitafios", the symbolic deathbed of Jesus: lilacs and narcissi (it was a country church; in the city it's lilies and roses). It was the assembly itself emitting its own smell of humanity and through it all a familiar smokish vanilla with slight accents of the inside of an old leather handbag. The scent assaulted my nostrils with the vexing pang of unidentified familiarity. I couldn't place it...And then out of blue the realisation hit me like a ton of bricks: Shalimar! Some unidentified woman wearing that most carnal oriental, bronzy like the candelabras that burned over our heads bearing the history of centuries. It puzzled me...

Good Friday is traditionally a day of abstinence, often subsisting on nothing but bread and water. And yet, here there was a carnal scent reminding me of non spiritual matters on that day. This chasm between the spiritual and the carnal is at the heart of matter. If Orthodoxy is antithetical to the Protestant faith in embracing the most humane of our faults while at the same time not granting the forgiveness that is so tangibly accessible in the confessional of Catholisism, how is it even possible that the carnal is so much accepted? How can the pleasure of the senses subsist into the celebration of the celebral and the divine?
But the Pagan survival in almost everything involving the rituals I remember is omnipresent: The beeswax candles that drip on the sand trays where old people stick them decisively yet with trembling hands, the wine that gets spilled on the floor as a tribute to the power of mother earth, the fires lain on the street of the castello fortified villages on the top of the Greek islands and the purotechnics shot on Easter's Eve midnight with their sulphurous smell...And most importantly, the death of the young god whose resurrection in the middle of nature's releafing is the return of Dionysus.
When my steps in assorted historical pursuits later took me to "ascetaria" (places of hermites) the myrrh exuded off the craggy walls of the caves stopped me in my tracks with its beauty and its caressing of the senses. How a person who lived on faith and little else could emit such a strong smell of holiness, and on top of that how could this smell be so pleasurable? Isn't sanctity synonymous to refusal? The question bugged me for long and it lay hidden at a corner of my mind, peaking its thorny head from time to time when an occassionary excess of the flesh filled me with an unexplicable sense of sorrow and unfullfilment. How could the Dionysian and the Appolonian, the Cthonic and the Olympian, coexist in a single soul?

Years enriched me with experiences and my dreary feet took me to various places with spiritual connotations. To the Bangkok Buddist temples with their serene smoke and the colourful blanket of different races entering and leaving, their skins and breaths speaking of exotic fruits of far away origin and pungent fish-soup. To the Great Mosque at Cordoba, Spain where Muslims kneeled beneath the pointy minarets, their clothes and bodies bearing the scented traces of lives lived beneath shady patios where the jasmine vines grow rampant. To the mahleb and cardamom smelling bakeries of Istanbul preparing the yummy desserts of the holy days, bought by Christians and Muslims alike, and the street vendors on Boğaziçi Köprüsü selling salep and salty mackerels to ease the hunger of the tourists. To the foreboding Minster in Ulm, Germany, its vertical majesty evoking thoughts of awe, where people pin little prayers on the cork board beginning "Liebe Gott" and the aroma of Eau de Cologne on the hands of the waiters in the cafeteria across the square. To the colourful vitraux of the York Minster, England, where the humidity of the soil and the sharp northern lights of the sky cannot hide the splendour of the roses blooming in the church yard and the women who stooped to smell them going out of the vesper service. To the modern synagogues of the East Coast of the US where kindly people share their cookies recipes in hushed whispers, whetting my appetite for culinary escapades upon returning home. And coming full circle, to immigrant familiar Greek churches in Melbourne, Australia, where the familiar, thick and smoky stench of Easter "lamb on a spit" roasting is never farther than a stone's throw away and where the whole street down the neighrhood is invited to the feas, no matter their adherent religion.

Because spirituality, I finally realised, is independent of religion and cannot be experienced if one has not first embraced all that this wonderful, this amazingly rich and truly wonderful life has to ferret: the good and the bad and the thorny. And the fragrant.

The kontakion "Ω γλυκύ μου έαρ" (My sweet spingtime) was written by Saint Romanus the Melodus in the 6th century AD and is the standard song of the Good Friday street procession throughout Greece.

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  1. I love your post. And I agree with the final thought, although in my mind it is slightly different. I was born a Catholic and that was how I declared myself for most of my life, but the older I get, I'd term myself a believer, not a Catholic.

  2. Anonymous16:42

    good post!!!!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Helg, i love your insight. Your words are like balm. The song is, too.
    Enjoy this "re-naissance time".

  5. Anonymous03:07

    Yes! Your profound thoughts on the complexity of religion, spirituality and, of course, scent memories have inspired me to officially de-lurk (unofficially did so in an email re: the sublime Djedi). Just spent most of Lent obsessively listening to Mozart's Requiem (for the first time ever I think my boys couldn't wait for me to finally leave the house so they could turn off the music). As is so often the case when I become fascinated with something, I researched the Requiem mass and found out that the earth-shattering Dies Irae that inspired Mozart (or his student Sussmayr, doesn't really matter)was actually removed from the Catholic funeral mass by Vatican II. The reason given was that it hearkened back to a "medieval" Catholicism of judgement and eternal damnation, whereas the new church wished to emphasize hope and a happy eternal life. That is all well and good, but religion should not be a popularity contest. I wonder if, by banishing the dark side of humanity, we have not lost our human right to have dark and hopeless days. Perhaps we would have fewer clinically depressed people if we allowed ourselves to embrace fully the "good, the bad and the thorny" as you put it, that resides in all of us.

    I should add, since this is a perfume blog, that Shalimar is my Mother's special occasion perfume and, even though she wears it, I always get the feeling that she does so with fear and awe of its power.

    Thank you again for this incredible forum.


  6. stella p11:26

    Just one word (with a footnote): beautiful!

    (what is the word for spring in the title of the song?)

  7. Dear E, I hope you are enjoying a lovely Easter. This post is so beautiful. I've read it several times now, and I'll share it with others.

  8. Ines,

    thank you, glad you found it enjoyable. There is great consolation in being at ease being that: a believer. Sometimes one doesn't need to prove, dispute, accept or reject anything ~one can be at peace just embracing the notion of the goodness inside one's soul. :-)

  9. D,
    thanks (I guess) :-)

  10. N,

    my dearest, thanks for chimming in. That song is very dear to my heart: an ecclesiastical lament that really speaks of spring's return, who could ask for something more "fusion"!

  11. D,

    Χριστός Ανέστη! Hope you had the most wonderful Pascha and sping is well in your reach :-)

  12. Natalia,

    thanks for delurking!! (and of course I do recall our discussions on Djedi!)
    Mozart's Requiem is one of my most favouite pieces and Dies Irae almost the highlight for me (although Lacrimosa is equally compelling, I'd think). It greatly suprises me that it was removed however! (didn't know that and thanks for the info) Dies Irae is a standard part of the western oratoria for centuries, from the Gregorian plainchant to Khachaturian through Liszt and Mahler. Odd!
    But I can see the point...Do they plan to tear apart the gargoyles on the gothic churches as well?? (after all, aren't they also ecclesiastical visual lessons for the medieval plain folks of the terrors of the purgatory?)

    What a perceptive thought you bring in the discussion: that embracing the bad and the thorny we're embracing what is most human. It would indeed save us many anxieties of our modern world. There is such pressure on being "happy" and "successful" all the time.....

  13. Thank you S!

    The word for spring is έαρ (EH-ar), from which derives the adjective εαρινός/εαρινή (=of the spring/ spinglike) as in Spring Equinox (εαρινή ισημερία).
    So the lament of Mary for Jesus is symbolical (the lyrics are truly beautiful), the tears for the young god being tears for the death of spring and nature. But also hope for the return/rebirth!

  14. M,

    thank you so much for your lovely, kind words. I hope you had a good celebration last week yourself and that you are enjoying your countryside hikes with attention undiminished (I live a precarious nature life through your pics!)

    Oh and plan a post on the Arabian scent too! ;-)

  15. stella p10:16

    The word for spring is έαρ (EH-ar), from which derives the adjective εαρινός/εαρινή (=of the spring/ spinglike) as in Spring Equinox (εαρινή ισημερία).
    I thought so, but had to ask to be sure! When our word (the Norwegian one) must be a very close relative, because that is vår. So both "ear" and "vår" (I think the pronunciation must be very close)must be very old words

  16. Oh definitely then dear S!!
    How fascinating! Έαρ is ancient Greek and is kept in the derivatives in modern Greek so there's definitely a connection with Norwegian then.
    I was occupying myself the other day with the theory that all languages (including Arabic, Sanskrit and Aramaic, which made a strong impression to me) were connected to Gaelic, the ancient Celt language through the transition of the Celts from the India plains to the centre of Europe (I assume they meant the
    lake-settlements in Switzeland).
    It's all very interesting although I would believe that basically it would be Sanskrit influencing Gaelic and not the other way around. Still, this is a subject that has interested me for long.

  17. Stella P20:16

    I have also since childhood found this subject fascinating. One of the things that had been good to know well is old Greek.. (I loved as a student reading the parallel editions of the classic philosophy)
    ps: many years ago I stumbled across one of the reconstructed Celtic villages by the lake of Constance, and it was a profound feeling "visiting" the ancient houses - and then I didn't even had heard about the Celtic settlements there.

  18. How could I disagree that reading classical philosophy is a delight? :-)
    Must have been quite a sight to see the village at Constance. It's always a little surpring to see a reconsitution of an old way of life, be it paleolithic or just 19th century. One is amazed by the extent of the same needs and the same ways to cater to them I find.


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