“Scent of Faith” * Nonfiction * Ro Miller

I was indoctrinated as a Catholic, so you will forgive the following several hundred words. I recently attended the Riverside Church Candlelight Carol Festival, an event aptly structured around a selection of Christian Carols. Upon sitting in the closely packed pews, wearing what now amounts to my Sunday best, I was thrust back into the bittersweet memories of Sunday mass. The proximity of strangers, the lukewarm dread at the approaching sermon, and the stoic resignation that worship was my reality for the next hour.

The Festival, though non-denominational, was imbued with the teachings and faith of the building in which it was housed. Yet, rather quickly, it removed me from my reverie about worship and thrust me into the experience. If worship revolves around feelings of reverence, this experience was centered on feelings of aesthetic appreciation—the difference lies in scent.

For those unfamiliar with the Roman Catholic tradition, lucky you. We are a group given over to theatrics and pageantry. My appreciation for the artistry of drag queens may stem from this. Each drag show has always seemed to build the chapel I longed for as a child. The call and response, the intimacy, and the garb, which in particular holds the same weight as a priest’s vestments.

Part of this non-secular pageantry is the burning of incense, though this scented addition is usually saved for most important spectacles, those the Church calls a High Mass. Its addition is never subtle; no well-hidden diffusers are placed strategically behind statues of the Virgin Mary. The smell is warm and deep. It’s the scent of a gathering warming to its purpose. The priests move through the space, swinging thuribles as scent and smoke assail you. It is the one aspect of a complicated relationship that I have always looked upon fondly; for the sole reason that something changes with the addition of scent. For those of you who did not grow up in the Church, let me briefly illustrate what I mean before I continue my evangelizing.

Scent has always been correlated with memory, and for good reason. It has a unique capacity to place you in great detail within a moment you used to occupy. But more than just placement, in some ways, it physicalizes the space. The scent of pancakes places you within the experience of your mother’s kitchen when she made you breakfast before school. You don’t just see this memory; it becomes embodied with a felt presence where you feel you have gone somewhere. This property of scent has made it so that I regret when specific memories lack a smell. Though I can visualize these experiences in my mind’s eye, I can never quite get within them.

It’s like looking at a bed versus being underneath the covers. When added or noticed, scent recreates the world and draws us deeper within. It breaks the distinction we sometimes implicitly create between ourselves and the world around us. We become a part of our experience; it becomes a part of us, and suddenly, the boundaries that often define life are softer.

I will not claim that this complication and deepening of experience do not happen with our other senses. It can and does. However, what enables scent to elevate what could be considered an experience of aesthetic appreciation into one of worship is unique. Scent allows presence to become a felt state no longer constrained to our current moment. Wherever a scent takes you, you feel “I am there.” You stop being a spectator and become a participant.

Suddenly, what before was a ceremony centered on recitation, visual spectacle, and tradition becomes unmoored. Whereas before you were in the experience, you are now within it. Worship becomes a matter of conversion from appreciation to adoration, an entangled form of experience. However, it doesn’t require a god, merely a willingness to convert. We experience worship with art, within a community, within moments that are so grounding because they begin to transcend description. Worship is presence, a subtle tipping point that doesn’t require a god or intelligible appreciation. Scent converted me in a way that the Church could not. Its worship involves nothing but a whiff and a willingness to let go.

 

—About the Author—

Ro Miller is a graduate of the Master’s in Performance Program at NYU. they are a conceptual artist with a focus on scent, performance and storytelling. Currently, they are working on an ongoing performance series featuring scented clowning. They are the Assistant Director at Olfactory Art Keller and the Co-Founder of the performance collective Residual.