Play any song from the Elton John album “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” and I will immediately smell Pine-Sol. Smell. It. Like that crazy kind of smelling that happens deep in the back of your throat. Turn up “The Italian Restaurant Song” by Billy Joel and I can feel the benign razor of palm fronds on the back of my neck. It’s absolutely crazy how visceral that memory is for me. It’s no surprise either. During the tumultuous years of the mind’s first imprints, one of my most poignant and consistent and safe life moments was the monthly cleaning spree my mom inflicted on the house. All our dozens of house plants were stuffed into my room where Little Sister and I turned them into swamps and jungles, kingdoms and fairy lands. Elton John, Billy Joel, Roberta Flack, Harry Nilsson went on the turntable and Mom got down to business – scrubbing every porous surface with Pine-Sol and every oak plank of our 80’s furniture with lemon scented Pledge. It was cleaning day. And all was well with the world because no matter what happened or how insane our life seemed to get, I could always count on that pine scented day rolling around again like a celebrated moon-rise.
This was mom’s liturgy: a combination of smells, sounds, rituals that created sanctuary and peace in our home even when all else may have railed against us. And, sitting in the church of her labor, it formed me, marked me, molded me.
We Westerners are a funny lot. Somewhere along the way we decided that things could be neat and tidy, divisible and rational. And in that vein, we decided that spiritual formation happens only and quite neatly in the spirit. By “spiritual” practices. That affect the…well, spirit. And by spirit we really meant the mind. Or maybe the emotions – kind of depends on which tradition you are emerging out of. How easily we forget that our sanitized, categorized Christianity is in some ways just a shadow of her roots as an Eastern religion – full of an integrated spirituality, where the physical reality was so tightly interwoven into the spiritual reality that to break them apart was nearly heresy. In our didactic way, we read the instructions for the Hebrew tabernacle and assume that the colors, the textiles, the smells were merely symbolic…beautiful ideas pointing to a greater reality. It’s so hard to rearrange inside our faith categories that maybe those smells and those colors had a significance greater than interpretive tool, but that maybe they created a psychology and a biology that worked together in the deep soul work of prayer, worship, and sacrifice.
The one great ritual of our faith instituted by Christ requires the body and senses in order to participate. It’s through a physical, sensory experience that we join in the formation of our spirits in communion. Jesus didn’t say, “When you think about this bread…” or “when you feel really worshipful about this wine…” Nope. He said, “Take and eat.”
The experience binds us to a narrative that forms us. The swell in the mouth when the wine hits and the words ring “blood of Christ”…these moments build up in our physical memory over time. The posture of prayer on the knees or with hands held open shifts the posture of our minds in a way that mental effort could never do on it’s own. This is not an accident. The image of the same GOD who interacted with Moses over the smallest details of a portable church. Would we be so surprised that she left an integrated fingerprint in us?
When you reflect on the visceral nature of tabernacle worship or of communion, what rings true with you? How has smell, sound, and physicality worked together to tell part of your story or form you uniquely? If you could accept that spiritual formation is not just the work of the spirit but requires the body and environment as well, what does that do to your expectations for the gathering or even for prayer and meditation?
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