Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Stinky Smoke

Through the hazy, smoky darkness, I could see his outline as he walked toward me…strong features, rigid posture, his voice low and soothing as he chanted. I realized that I was holding my breath and let it out in a roaring whoosh before greedily sucking in more oxygen. But the oxygen wasn’t there. There was no air, only thick plumes of smoke billowing around my head. My lungs reacted immediately, forcing out a cough so violent that it made my eyes tear up and my ribs throb. Dizziness and nausea overtook me as I made myself move, retracing my steps and praying that my legs would carry me in the direction of the door. There had to be a way out. I couldn’t die like this!

Okay, so I’m exaggerating. It wasn’t going to kill me. After all, it wasn’t actual smoke. It was just incense. According to the Encarta Dictionary, incense is “a substance, usually fragrant gum or wood that gives off a pleasant smell when burned.” Wait a minute. Incense is supposed to smell pleasant? So, the incense wasn’t going to kill me, but the smell did make me dizzy and sick to my stomach. And I did cough. And my eyes did burn. Incense? Who thought up that tradition?

As a youngster, going to church seemed miserable enough without the added problem of the smoke emerging from the golden ball and chain that the priest swung around. (FYI: For a funny look at this, check out the movie Keeping the Faith. It’s a funny and touching story about two best friends, Ben Stiller who is a Rabbi and Edward Norton who is a Catholic priest. At one point, Edward Norton sets his robes on fire when he’s swinging the incense ball.) Anyway, I never did like the smell of incense. I know some people love it, but I’m not one of them. I think maybe it was too overpowering for me that first time. I mean, I was in a crowded church, smashed between my mom and my sister, and the heat, general discomfort and the overpowering combination of the scent of the incense and the strong perfume all the old ladies were wearing just about did me in.

I didn’t like church in general. It was the same thing, week after week after week. Walk into the church, pick a seat (always in the back, because mom hated sitting in the front), genuflect, hit the kneeler and say a prayer, sing a song, make the sign of the cross, hear a couple of stories, listen to the priest talk, sing some more, go to Communion (oh man, one of my sisters introduced me to the comedic talent of Dane Cook, who does a hilarious spoof on church and going to Communion) sing some more, and thankfully, blessedly, be able to go home. We did this every week. Every. Single. Week. Plus, we attended school masses, too. Every. Single. Week. I couldn’t stand it. Most of the time, I would just sit and daydream about what I was going to do after church or sit in the pew and count the panes in the stained-glass windows.

Looking back on it, I understand that it was because I didn’t get the meaning of going to church. Back then, it was just a task that had to be completed because mom said so and the nuns said so. Well whoopy-dee-doo.

Finally, I boycotted. Couldn’t stand it anymore. I quit going to church for…seven years? Something like that. It was a long time. Then, one day, I was walking across my university campus, and I swear something (someone) slapped me on the back of my head. I actually looked around, thinking someone threw a snowball at me. The only thing I saw was the university chapel and I could almost hear, “Good morning, Martha. This is God. How about paying Me a visit?” So I did.

In the years since, I’ve gone to church regularly, only missing on occasion due to illness or travel, and while I still daydream every now and then during a boring sermon, I pretty much always take something of value away from mass. If nothing else, I always have a sense of peace and hope for the future. I still despise incense, but when it’s being used, I do my best to remember that while I may find it unappealing, there are other people who love the smell—and perhaps people who, due to illness or injury cannot smell it, wish they could.

God, today I want to thank You for the days in my life and all the experiences that go with them. I pray that I cherish all of my days, and remember that even a bad day is a good day—because without You, I wouldn’t have had a day at all.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

This reminds me of one time when I excused myself from a school mass. The heat of hundreds of bodies, combined with the smell of the smoke, was about to get to me--I knew I was about to faint. I went outside. I sat on the front steps of church gulping in the fresh, cold air. The teacher came out to check on me after a little while. I can't imagine any teacher today being so calm about finding a student OUTSIDE of church during mass. I went in when I was feeling better.

At our cousin's funeral mass in July, when the incense ball started, right at the beginning (you know how an Orthodox mass is), I hovered near the door. I was sure the July heat and the fragrant incense would be too much for me. But it wasn't. It was strange and comforting throughout the whole service.

Still, I'm glad that there isn't usually incense at an ordinary mass. Memories can flood the mind as the scent fills the nostrils.