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Scent, Memory, and Worship

Last year in Nashville, I bought some pumpkin and caramel-scented candles. For the next few weeks, our home was filled with a smell that, in my mind, will forever be associated with Hutchmoot. While I burned my candles mercilessly, my daughter saved a small one and kept it in her room.

A few weeks ago she burned it for a couple of hours, blew it out, and then accidentally knocked it over, leaving a pool of thick amber wax to spread across her desk. As the oils seeped into the tiny cracks in the wood, the fragrance filled the entire room, pouring out into the corridor and down the staircase. For days, every time I walked past her room, regardless of my mood, task, or the time of day, the waves of caramel pumpkin swirl involuntarily drew my thoughts to Hutchmoot.

There is a link between memory and smell that is impossible to override.

The faintest perfume of a certain flower can transport you instantly back to your childhood. The sharp, sterile blend of disinfectant and warm air drags you against your will to a hospital room you would rather forget, awakening pangs of anxiety or sadness you have tried so hard to bury.

Even in the hardest hearts and the darkest moments the right scent is powerful enough to awaken longing. Heidi Johnston

Some days there is nothing more comforting than opening my parents’ front door and finding myself cocooned in the smell that is particular to their house. Maybe it’s the blend of washing detergent, my Dad’s aftershave, the constant baking, and the subtle lingering presence of furniture polish. Whatever it is, it smells like home.

This deep, involuntary link between smell and memory is something we cannot switch off. Overriding choice, it bypasses our defenses and compels us to remember. I wonder if this is why God’s design for worship in the Old Testament was always such a sensory experience? Nauseating, metallic blood pooled around the altar. Acrid smoke rose from the sacrifices. Thick, heady incense burned continually in the tabernacle. Each of these strong, distinct smells created associations in the mind of the Israelites, blending to form an inescapable call to worship. Whether they liked it or not.

In the Gospels, we read about another time when worship and fragrance went hand in hand. Just a few days before his crucifixion, moved by overwhelming gratitude and love, Mary broke a priceless jar of perfume and poured it over Jesus. John 12:3 tells us that the smell of the perfume was so strong that it “filled the house,” which means as Jesus left the house the perfume went with him. Once the concentrated oil soaked into his skin and hair and clothes, the smell would have lasted for days.

I don’t know whether Jesus would have changed or washed His clothes in the short period between this intimate anointing and the time of his arrest and crucifixion. Either way, I don’t think it’s a wild speculation to suggest that the smell of the oil continued to cling to him as he entered Jerusalem on the donkey. Like kings before him, his triumphal entry was perfumed by the smell of spikenard, immediately conjuring up pictures of kingship and majesty in the minds of onlookers, creating a sensory echo of their shouted proclamation, “Hail Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Perhaps even in the garden, mingled with the olives and the warm night air, the scent of the oil was present. As the soldiers moved in to take hold of Jesus, did the familiar smell cause their minds to wander for just a moment to something greater than their own short-lived authority? Is it possible that even as they stripped and beat him, his torn and bleeding flesh still carried the faintest scent of royalty?

Even in our hardest hearts or darkest moments, the right scent is powerful enough to awaken longing. I have been wondering lately whether there is a way to harness this deeply instinctive connection, allowing us to tie our inner selves to memories of God’s word, to his faithfulness, and to worship in a way that is gentle yet intentional.

I’m not sure how it would look practically, but I can’t help wondering what would happen if our times of intimacy with God, whether alone, together with our families or even in our churches were in some way linked to fragrances that, in darker times, would draw us back to the memory of intimacy with God. Would stubborn children, drifting far from the things they learned at home, deaf to the pleas of heartbroken parents, find themselves broken by a familiar smell and the wave of longing that came in its wake? Would we, in our days of self-satisfied arrogance, be reminded of the God who once filled our hearts to overflowing?

Maybe I could choose to have the same flowers regularly in the place I tend to go to meet with God? Could it mean choosing to burn a particular scent of candle in the background at times when your family sits around God’s word together, so that the chosen fragrance becomes a marker farther down the road? Some of you may already have your own well-established rhythms in this area. I know that in some traditions fragrance and scent play a larger part than they do in my own and I’d love to know how that works. Does it impact you? Is it something you are consciously aware of? Are there particular fragrances that stir up memories for you? Has a certain fragrance ever triggered a memory that has stirred you to worship?

I’m captivated by the possibility of setting in place these invisible markers for my future self. Of reaching forward to gently touch my children’s hearts with a familiar hope. I don’t know if these links between scent and memory can be intentionally formed but if God has planted this deeply rooted connection within us then perhaps it’s worth considering?

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