Missing the Mass of Incense

In an essay titled "The Scentsory Adventure" from his book The Thorny Grace of It (a delightful recent gift), Brian Doyle writes: "You know what no one talks about when they talk about the Mass? The panoply of scents, the plethora of sensory adventures that enter 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 organ and 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 leather friendly aftershaveish smell of your neighbor as he shakes your hand...

This is a marvelously clear and poetic description, but even as I relate to it, it strikes me how many cannot relate to it, or don't want to. And I mean lots of Catholics. Especially young Catholics. The lavish sights and smells, the abundance of sacramentals that evoke the mysterium tremendum and which so many of a certain generation conjure in memory: these seem to be distant and dissolving, exiled into the same territory as mastery of Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare. 


I don't want to overstate the case. I don't want to speak for communities and parishes everywhere. When I was a law student at Notre Dame, every Sunday Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart conveyed something of the "scentsory adventure" Doyle depicts. I recall similar experiences at Saint Francis Xavier College Church, on the campus of Saint Louis University. But, for example, most of the near-600 students at the Jesuit college prep where I teach, the majority of whom are Catholic, have never experienced what Doyle is talking about. And given trends, they might never.

This doesn't mean that all is lost. Students and faculty are inventive and creative, and they inspire devotion in new ways. And simple, unadorned spaces have their own appropriateness: The King of the World arrived in a manger, after all. Jesus preached on shorelines and in countrysides. God can meet us anywhere. 

But there is something about the traditional experience of the Catholic Mass ("incense and all," as some put it) that nourishes the soul and elevates the mind in ways that are difficult to replicate elsewhere. How do we get it back? 

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Bruce Snowden
4 years ago
How do we “get it back,” the liturgical smell of incense? By selective ‘Trinitarianizing” of Mass in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy. What does that mean? Well, if I were calling the shots, that would mean incensation of the Altar at the start of Liturgy, also before the reading of the Gospel and finally over the prepared Bread and Wine. This would be done on Sundays and Holy Days and on Solemn Feasts like Christmas, incensation would also include Celebrant, Con-celebrants and the Congregation and the Eucharist at Elevation. Many Churches already do this but it needs to be a mandated part of liturgy, universalizing it! Incense will give the Church that “churchy” smell along with all the other “smells” some beautiful like lighted wax candles, some not so pleasant, but never as bad as a sweaty day on a NYC subway with the air-condishioning off! As a kind of an aside, let me add you’d be surprised, even shocked what people leave in Church. In younger years serving as a Parish Sacristan one of my jobs was to go through the pews on a Monday morning, to find empty and some not so empty soda cans, tissues galore, used pampers, empty milk containers one time a set a false teeth and believe it or not, a packaged condom! Also, it was even likely that I’d find a Host on the floor, one time embedded into the wood so long had it been there. Other places too in the Church one might find spitted out Eucharist! Always I took the sacrament to the Sacristy and washed it down the Sacrarium. Just thought FYI you might find the addition interesting.
Dawna Sutton
4 years ago
All one needs to do is find a local Episcoplian Church to find all the smells and bells. I often go to one and they also believe in the "real presence" and celebrate all the sacraments and all the sacraments are open to each person male and female. Each person participates with singing, word and Eucharist. They also have a quiet Eucharist at least at one of the services on Sunday. They have not thrown out all tradition with "bath water" They also have religious orders, nuns and the "Divine Office" is celebrated often before the morining service and on other days they have evening prayer. No going back to celebration of Eucharist in a "dead language" .
John Feehily
4 years ago
Incense was used in the temple to cover the stench of animal sacrifices. It found its way into the more solemn celebrations of Mass that were devised by and for clerics at a time when ordinary sheep had no idea what was going on. Smell and bells eventually became identified with reverence and adoration. The reformed rites admit the use of incense as a nod to one idea of "tradition", but these days there is no need to cover the smell of the sheep who are able to offer the Mass in a way they can grasp with both minds and senses. Incense can be a huge bane to people with respiratory issues like asthma and allergies. I use it very sparingly.
John Walton
4 years ago
Needn't go to far from NYC for incense and traditional liturgical music --- 11:00 Mass at OLS in South Orange -- also broadcast via the Seton Hall University radio station www.wsou.net
Sandra Mears
4 years ago
For those of us who do remember the incense mass and still have it inflicted on us occassionally, it does not give me a sense of majesty but rather a blinding headache, nausea, and especially for those priests who overdo it repeatedly a sick feeling in my stomach. What are they trying to coverup. We are bombarded with so much noise and so many scents in life, I appreciate best a mass of quiet reflection, participatory singing and NO INCENSE!


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