We walk by faith, not sight, but that doesn’t mean we stop using our senses.
In the Eucharist, we taste and see that God is good. We hear the word of God in prayer and at the liturgy. We are even touched by God through the sacraments (see Lumen Fidei).
This goes for all of our senses, even the sense of smell. In fact, there perhaps may be no better example of how our sensory life can be completely entwined with the spiritual life than then sense of smell. To even suggest this today may seem odd, if not downright off-color or inappropriate. But it wasn’t so in early Church, as this homily from St. John Chrysostom on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man well illustrates:
Thou art a spiritual soldier; but such a soldier does not sleep on an ivory bed, but on the ground; he does not use scented unguents, for this is the habit of sensual and dissolute men—of those who live on the stage, or in indolence; and it is not the odour of ointment that thou shouldst have, but that of virtue. The soul is none the more pure when the body is thus scented. Yea, this fragrance of the body and of the dress may even be a sign of inward corruption and uncleanness. For when Satan makes his approaches to corrupt the soul and fill it with all indolence, then also by means of ointments he impresses upon the body the stains which mark its inner defilement.
Chrysostom is making an argument on a moral, practical level and also on a spiritual one. His comment reflects the ancient Church’s strong association of cosmetics with immorality. The sentiment is well captured by Tertullian, in criticizing Roman decadence in his Apology:
I see, too, that neither is a single theatre enough, nor are theatres unsheltered: no doubt it was that immodest pleasure might not be torpid in the wintertime, the Lacedaemonians invented their woollen cloaks for the plays. I see now no difference between the dress of matrons and prostitutes.
For Chrysostom, the sweetness of virtue was preferable to that of the perfumes. On the practical side, his advice amounts to a kind of an abstinence from the olfactory pleasures—a kind of mortification of the body. Put bluntly, Christians who followed his advice would not smell as good as their pagan peers. This may not have been a big deal for them, but for some monks, the smell associated with their extreme asceticism became both a potential public nuisance and also had significant spiritual ramifications, as Brown University scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey reveals in her book Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (University of California Press, 2006).
Harvey recounts the story of one Syriac monk, Simeon the Stylite, so named because he spent the last 37 years of his life atop a pillar or stylite. Before his pillar-dwelling days, Simeon was a member of a monastic community. As a novice, he bound a rope around his waist so tightly that it caused bleeding. Simeon left the rope in place for a year, eventually causing his flesh to rot. The stench was so severe that he was eventually expelled from the community, according to accounts cited by Harvey.
When he moved to the pillar, the severe, foul-smelling asceticism continued. One ancient hagiography describes in detail what happened when he suffered an infection in his foot:
And when he received power over him on one of those days as he stood praying, a severe disease smote him in his left foot. While he was wishing for the evening to come, it was filled with ulcers; and when the next, day dawned, it burst and emitted foul odor and was alive with maggots. Matter and a disgusting smell came from the loot, and maggots fell out of it upon the ground. So powerful and bad was the stench that not even half way up the ladder could one ascend except with distress. Some of his disciples who forced themselves to go up to him could not ascend until after they had put on their noses incense and fragrant ointment. He suffered this way nine months until nothing was left of him except the breath only.
Then something wonderful happened. One king came to visit, in a story recounted by Harvey. Standing below the rotting saint he saw a worm fall from one of his gangrenous wounds. The king picked it up. When he opened his hand, it had turned into a pearl.
Harvey sees the worm-pearl incident as a metaphor for what was happening to the saint’s body, including how it smelled. When Simeon at last had passed one of his followers climbed up the pillar to retrieve the body. But instead of the stench, he is greeted by a fragrant aroma that intensifies as the funeral is held. And here is the theological significance to all this, as explained by Harvey:
The saint’s body in its foul-smelling corruptibility signifies the fallen human condition. Simeon’s labors are the willing endurance of humanity’s utter sickness, and through his labors redemption will be achieved. Just as the worm transmute[d] to the priceless pearl, so, too [did] Simeon’s stench ultimately transform into the astonishing fragrance of divine incorruptibility (Scenting Salvation, 191; one feels the need to add that this redemption would have been through grace, not human labors apart from grace).
In Catholic tradition, this is known as the “odor of sanctity” that has sometimes been detected around the bodies of saints. The only two saints that are known to have had visible stigmata—Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio—both reportedly gave off a sweet smell from their wounds. When St. Polycarp was burned to death, his scorched body smelled of frankincense. And St. Teresa of Avila’s grave smelled like perfume for nine months after her death.
If it sounds like we have strayed far into the most peripheral and trivial matters, it’s worth noting that the odor of sanctity has a biblical foundation. In 2 Corinthians 2:15, St. Paul writes, “For we are the good odour of Christ unto God, in them that are saved, and in them that perish.” Likewise he writes in Philippians 4:18 that he has received “an odour of sweetness, an acceptable sacrifice” from them. This is all part of the imitation of Christ, as St. Paul explains in Ephesians 5:2, “And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness.”
There is a larger point here. The story of Simeon illustrates how we are saved. We are not saved from our bodies; rather, the whole man, body and soul, is saved. Put another way: we are not saved from bad smells; rather, the sense of smell is saved, as Harvey suggests. The stench of decay—both an actual consequence and also a metaphor for the fallen state of our nature—is converted to the sweetness of incorruptibility in Christ.