I was in the congregation for the lunchtime Eucharist. That’s always an interesting experience. I seldom sit down in the nave and to be honest, I should do it more often. One of the problems with ordained ministry is that you rarely get to see things from the opposite perspective, looking up the nave rather than down into it, if you know what I mean. And things do look very different; you notice things that you hadn’t before. But it was something rather wonderful that struck me this lunchtime and nothing in fact to do with the Eucharist (though that was great).
At one point the Verger on duty came back out of the Sacristy which is on the north side of the nave. He’d had to hold the door open for some people. That gave sufficient time for a smell to emerge from the Sacristy. Now sacristies and vestries have a variety of smells – the musty smell that comes from those boxes of service sheets and Series 2 booklets on the top of the cupboards that should have been thrown away years ago; the smell of candles; the smell of coffee being brewed; the smell of centuries of cassocks and robes hung in the cupboards. Church smells are very evocative. Someone in fact bought me a bottle of ‘perfume’ which captures exactly the smell. It’s called ‘Liturgie des Heures’ and when I wear it I smell like church! But the smell that emerged through the open door and pervaded the Cathedral was different again.
Behind the door, in the Sacristy, Paul, the Dean’s Verger, was completing the task of preparing the oils for the Chrism Mass tomorrow. This is a big job as at Southwark as we provide individual bottles of each of the three oils – baptism, for the sick and Chrism – for each of the priests who need it. That means that he prepares about 400 of each. The labels are very distinctive and so it was a joy to see them in one of the photographs in the exhibition ‘Of things not seen : A year in the life of a London priest’. It is on at the Oxo Tower on the South Bank. In one photo the bottles are lined up on the sacristy windowsill. Paul was preparing the Chrism which is full of wonderful and exotic smells. It wafted out and it was transporting.
It reminded me of a verse from the gospel we heard on Monday. It was the account of the anointing of Jesus by Mary at the meal at Bethany and I’m still thinking about it. John, describing the event says,
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12.3)
It’s one of those wonderful lines for me, speaking of much more than was happening in the room, speaking in some way of the pervasiveness of God. It’s a wonderful link between what happens before the crucifixion and after as women anoint both the living and the dead body of Jesus with fragrant oil. The scent emerged from the Sacristy and nothing could stop it and it filled the space where we were.
This week we have the privilege of sitting at the feet of Canon Mark Oakley from St Paul’s Cathedral. For the last two evenings Mark has been using the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne to think about the things of faith. It’s been marvellous and there’s more to come. But there was something about being caught by surprise by the wonderful fragrance during the Mass that took me back to the poets.
It’s hard to describe a smell but we instantly recognise it and it can trigger so many inner thoughts. It isn’t always easy to understand poetry and as Mark reminded us yesterday evening as he talked of Donne, you never actually finish thinking about a poem, you simply put it down to continue thinking about it later. And poems, for me, are like fragrance, that speaks in a deeper way, a more pervasive way than other things often do.
In his poem Prayer (1), Herbert concludes his fantastic attempt to describe prayer by layering image upon metaphor, upon image upon metaphor by saying
‘The land of spices; something understood.’
The spiciness of the Chrism, which the priests will receive tomorrow for ministry, is almost a capturing of the fragrance that filled the room at Bethany and a vehicle to transport both anointer and anointed to another place. That place may be understood but it may also be indescribable yet we breathe deeply and inhale the fragrance of God – and we are there – in the room and in the tomb, the places of anointing when the poetry of God breaks into the prose of life.
God, when words cannot do it
may I touch