Friday, January 13th, 2012
I often write down possible topics for eventual research and for new courses I might like to teach sometime to our students at the College of the Holy Cross. Though institutional church history may not draw huge crowds these days, some other religious topics could well fill a classroom. The history of sin, from Adam to the Apocalypse, is one of my possible but not-yet-offered courses. (Would it include discussion sections, or even some community-based learning?)
Another possible course is on Catholicism as smell. For in Catholic tradition there is sin portrayed as stench, and sanctity as suave odor. St. Ignatius of Loyola invites those doing his Spiritual Exercises to ‘apply’ their imaginary senses, smell included, to contemplation of themes such as sin. Also, Catholics encounter the sweet smell of flowers in sanctuaries, at feast days, weddings and funerals, and perhaps from flowers placed before statues of favorite saints. There is St. Thérèse of Lisieux, called the Little Flower. There are the oils used in certain sacraments, blessings, and consecrations, and some of these oils have a distinct scent. There is incense in various qualities and strengths.
On this point, I still recall my ordination, more than two decades ago, when a particularly strong whiff of fragrant incense brought me to tears, tears of irritation perhaps, but also of consolation. These days, the Jesuits in Australia retain an excellent winery, and its vintages offer a menu of olfactory delights. Most recently, a company based in California has been marketing what they call the pope’s cologne, based, they say, on a formula for the cologne favored by Pope Pius IX. It is said to be made with same essences that his perfumers used, and to have ‘notes’ of violet and citrus! But even such notes, it would seem, did not endear Pius to his many enemies.
Despite this failure of papal odor to make a difference, have historians given too little attention to the smell of Catholicism?