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March 14, 2012
The odor of sanctity
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

In ascetical theology, “the odor of sanctity” has come to mean that fragrance proceeding from the person, clothing, or domicile of a saint during life or after death. The phrase also refers to a reputation for extraordinary holiness of life.

In examining causes for sainthood, postulators have found that saintly men and women have emitted agreeable fragrances such as orange-blossom, cinnamon, musk, and benjamin, or that of the violet and rose. (A. Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, 375).

Smells and Aromas

The sense of smell perceives an agreeable odor, like freshly-brewed coffee, or a foul odor, like rotten food. Attics have a musty odor. Trained dogs are used to follow the scent of a person. The phrase, ‘something smells fishy,’ colloquializes Shakespeare’s line from Hamlet, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Then that ‘whiff of scandal’ rears its ugly head … somewhere.

Perfumes in Retrospect

Perfume is as old as the origins of man and woman because it is connected with health and psychology. Aromatic substances are mentioned throughout the Bible because they were used for religious (rituals, etc), health (medicinal), personal reasons (pleasure and for cosmetics), and funereal purposes. As for the latter, aromatic scents used by women in the New Testament to reverence the body of Jesus are one example. Some essential oils we know today as aromatherapy, easily recognizable as scented olive oil, lavender, lemon grass, dill, lily, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia (incense), cedar wood, chamomile, citronella, eucalyptus, ginger, and oregano. The Book of Proverbs tells us that “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart . . . ” (Prov 27: 9).

Perfumes and essential oils were staples of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and it was common for people to wear garlands of flowers and to hang fragrant plants indoors to freshen the air within. The Crusaders returning from the Orient introduced to their homelands perfumes such as musk, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and other esoteric and scented oils. Fragrances evoke feelings of wellness, joy, happiness, sensuality, and seduction.

Seduction, Perfume, and the French

In her recent book, La Seduction, Elaine Sciolino, the American New York Times correspondent, has found French life permeated with the “seduction factor,” perhaps France’s unofficial ideology. It permeates virtually all aspects of life: politics and foreign affairs, literature, history, film, advertising, fashion, entertaining, food and wine, and of course, sex. The great French houses of perfume have produced the world’s most famous perfumes: Chanel, Coty, Fragonard, Galmard, Guerlain, and Houbigant. Men buy perfume to remind them of a living or deceased loved one, and it makes present to them that loved one and the memories attached to her (paraphrased from Joseph Roccasalvo, The Odor of Sanctity, 106).

The Making of a Perfume: a Metaphor

To make a perfume, three layers or notes are needed. The top layer is strong in scent but volatile, evaporating quickly. This scent like orchid, lavender, peppermint, and the citrus variety gives off a fresh, assertive, and sharp fragrance. The second layer is also known as the heart or middle notes. Mellow and round, this layer emerges when the top note dissipates. Rosewood, jasmine, rose, hyacinth, and lemon grass are some fragrances included in the heart notes. Finally, the base or ground layer stays the longest on the skin. It is deep and rich and is not perceived until about thirty minutes after the application. Foundational notes may have as their base scents like musk, citrus, sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli, cedar wood, clove, and cinnamon.

The Odor of Sanctity, the Perfume of a Great Religious Order

A religious order gives off its own fragrance too. As soon as one approaches a Benedictine monastery, for example, located far from city life, the senses detect the top note or whiff of what is Benedictine: it is countercultural. Inside its monastery church all is spare, restrained, and stripped of affect and excess. After a period of time living and following the monastic horarium, something of a chemical reaction occurs between its spirit and the human heart–the heart notes take over to support the top layer. Benedictine heart notes, that is, the stuff of what is monastic, blend prayer (ora) silence and solitude, and Gregorian chant, centered on the Eucharistic liturgy, the cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours (lectio divina), and work (labora) in study, letters or science, in the sacred, refining or practical arts, agriculture, or offering hospitality to guests. Living in one place is the monastic base note. This stationery, fixed way of life gives consistency and meaning to its motto, ora et labora, the essence of what it means to be Benedictine. Nuanced differences may be detected from one person to another, but the underlying perfume is singularly monastic. (Ibid) This stable form of life, lived apart from the world’s bustle, laid the roots of western civilization centuries ago. Today, the Benedictine Order remains a great magnet of culture throughout the world.

The Odor of Sanctity, the Perfume of the Christian Vocation

St. Paul links holiness in Christ to the image of a fragrant aroma:

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life (2 Cor 2:14-16).

Mahatma Gandhi relates this fragrance to a rose:

Let your life speak to us even as the rose needs no speech but simply spreads its perfume. Even the blind who do not see the rose perceive its fragrance. That is the secret of the rose. But the Gospel that Jesus preached is much more subtle and fragrant than the gospel of the rose. If the rose needs no agent, much less does the Gospel of Christ need any agent (SK George, “Gandhi and the Church,” published on Gandhi’s 75th birthday, 1944).

The top layer shows the externals of a person, how one presents oneself, his or her style of dress and manner of speaking. The heart notes reveal one’s character, attitudes and actions, what his or her priorities and goals are. At the foundation, the constant of the Christian’s vocation is Christ. He is the corner stone of the Christian vocation from infancy to maturity, from bud to flower to fall. For the Catholic, Christ the head and his Body the Church are inseparable because they form the whole Christ living a human and divine life to build up the kingdom in the world.

In Conclusion ...

Seduction is more ancient than the French connection. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we read of images of seduction, betrothal, and covenant-marriage between the Israelites as Bride and the Lord God as her Bridegroom. Two scriptural passages express these images: (1) “You have seduced me, O Lord, and I have allowed myself to be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you prevailed” (Jer 20:7) and (2) “I am going to lure her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hos 2:16). In Vatican II, the relationship between Christ and his Church is first described with the image of betrothal, Bridegroom and Bride. Christian mystics often couch their imagery in terms Lover and Beloved. They often quote or paraphrase verses from the Song of Songs (2:13, 14b:4-7), such as:

BELOVED: My lover says to me, ‘Come then, my beloved, my lovely one, come.

Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely.’

LOVER: You are wholly beautiful, my beloved.

The French may claim first prize in the art of perfumery, but the art of seduction belongs first to the Divine Lover.

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