Monasteries of the Heart

Odor of Sanctity

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When I was a young sister, we read a monastic lives- of- the- saints book aloud every noon at lunch. The community ate in silence and listened to these strange stories of people who never bathed or hid in caves to escape human contact or were burned, flayed and tortured for the faith. Believe me, it didn’t help with digestion. But one phrase from those stories haunted me. Over and over I heard that the saint of the day had “the odor of sanctity.” What is “the odor of sanctity,” I wondered? And how did you get it?

Then I read a prayer by Saint Augustine that has become one of my favorites. The prayer begins “Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever ancient ever new….” And it ends, “Thou dist breath fragrance upon me,/and I drew in my breath/ and now do I sigh for thee.”

I liked the thought of breathing in fragrant Beauty. Think of swimming in flowers or holding close an object from a loved one that still carries his or her scent. I, for one, kept my father’s tie and my mother’s apron after they died. Often I reach for them, trying to capture a lingering scent.

How delightful, then, to know God as a beautiful fragrance that we breathe in until it permeates every part of our being. Breathe in...breathe in…breathe in.

And then, of course, breathe out. Take the beauty of God-scent everywhere.

Let the God-fragrance of you attract all who come near. Let those around you breathe in your kindness, care of the poor, and compassion. Let them say of you, “She or he has ‘the odor of sanctity.’”

An exercise that I use in poetry ad prayer workshops to get across this “odor of sanctity” is one you might want to try. Take a small dab of perfume and place it on your forehead and pray the words, “Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me,/ and I drew in my breath/ and now do I sigh for Thee.” Then breathe in…and out. Breathe in…and out. Breathe in…and out.

But before this blog gets too sticky-sweet on perfume and sanctity, let me inject some reality. Sister Mary Miller runs our soup kitchen and tells this story. “There is a very poor family, a father, mother and son, who come daily for dinner. They smell so badly that when they go by the serving line people have to step back. No one will sit with them. They don’t bathe, their clothes are dirty and it’s possible they don’t have toilet facilities where they live,” she explained. “But when an older man from the kitchen fell and broke his hip who went to visit them? Not me,” she said, “that little family went. And who took him for a ride while he was convalescing?” she asked. “Not me. They did. So now when they pass me in the serving line I take a deep breath and say, ‘Ah, the odor of sanctity.’”