Monday, June 27, 2016

Incense as the Sacramental of Devotion

Dirigatur, Domine, oratio mea, sicut incensum in conspectu tuo. Let my prayer, O Lord, be directed as incense in Thy sight. (Psalm 140[141]:2)

St. Thomas Aquinas, in the fourth book of his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, states: “Figures that signify what should always be done should not end, as is clear in the example of using incense, which signifies devotion.”[1] In context, Aquinas is arguing about whether circumcision should cease once baptism is in place, but what I was struck by is his matter-of-fact statement — said without any fear of contradiction — that the use of incense is just one of those symbols that we will always be using in our rites, since it signifies devotion, which ought always to be present.

At this point in the text, the editors of the Parma edition of Aquinas decided to insert a lengthy note, which is rather unusual. Evidently they thought readers would wish to know just how and when incense was used to express devotion:
Incense in Italy was not used in antiquity in the sacred rites of the Gentiles. Each one used to bring to the gods what he had at hand: honey, wine, milk, but mostly fruits or the first fruits; then they used to give those things that come from grains, like spelt and liba (cakes).  However, after this incense was imported from Arabia into Greece and Italy, although it was brought at great expense to Rome, people of every class could nevertheless purchase a little bit easily, even the poorest, which they would use as an offering.  The poor would offer three grains of incense with their three fingers. But the use of incense in the cult of the true God is extremely ancient. Whence Henry Cannegieter [1691-1770] must be rebuked for asserting the following propositions: 1) Christians abhorred the use of incense in the Sacred Rites or Mass. 2) There were no thymiamata [resin compositions of incense] in the ancient Church.[2]
Where Henry Cannegieter doubted the use of incense in the ancient Church or in the Mass, considering it an abomination, G. W. F. Hegel in Phenomenology of Spirit considered its use a sign of “the Unhappy Consciousness,” which, for him,
is only a movement towards thinking, and so is devotion. Its thinking as such is no more than the chaotic jingling of bells, or a mist of warm incense, a musical thinking that does not get as far as the Notion [or Concept], which would be the sole, immanent objective mode of thought. . . . What we have here, then, is the inward movement of the pure heart which feels itself, but itself as agonizingly self-divided, the movement of an infinite yearning . . . . At the same time, however, this essence is the unattainable beyond which, in being laid hold of, flees, or rather has already flown.[3]
For Hegel, devotion means abortive thinking, a gesturing towards conceptual clarity without attaining it. Devotion substitutes the ringing of bells and clouds of incense for rigorous thought; it settles for music rather than science. Yet what I find so delightfully odd is that Hegel has portrayed not an imperfection but, on the contrary, one important reason why the Christian is superior to the mere logician or scientist: the fact that the Christian is possessed of an infinite longing for the divine — this, a gift of God’s grace! — and that he is agonizingly self-divided, since he sees in himself, fallen creature that he is, both a renewed spirit that belongs to Christ and an old Adam that stubbornly clings to the earth. It is precisely through the virtue of devotion that he yields himself up again and again, like incense, to God, as to one who is not only ineffable and inaccessible but also nearer to me than I am to myself, present in all things as the one who holds them in being and endows them with their forms, capacities, energies, and destinies. It is only from the unbeliever that devotion’s object flees or has flown, only to him that it is unattainably beyond.

The saint has become incense that burns upwards to God and in so doing diffuses to men the sweet fragrance of divine gifts. He is flame that, in the intensity of his desire to keep burning and set others aflame, consumes whatever dares oppose it, the last remnants of selfish preoccupations and preferences. In unison with all voices of the Catholic tradition, St. Thomas teaches that holiness — which in one place he defines as “purity consecrated to God”[4] — is judged strictly in terms of charity, whereby one’s very self is handed over, yielded up, made wholly sacred.

We can learn much from pondering the narrow-mindedness of Cannegieter and Hegel. Cannegieter thinks the use of incense either superfluous or idolatrous; Hegel thinks it primitive and prephilosophical. For the one it is a form of excess, for the other a defect or retardation. What neither seems to grasp is the realm of symbol as symbol, and man as homo liturgicus whose path between creation and eternity is strewn with signs that clue him in or lead him astray. We cannot not be immersed in a world of signs; our only choice is which signs to surround ourselves with and what to make of them. Indeed, the result of iconoclasm and minimalism is the anti-trinitarian sign of emptiness, coldness, and barrenness, as we have seen and heard in all too many modern churches and liturgies.

It was fashionable for people in the sixties and seventies to talk about how Catholics had “grown up” (or how they needed to grow up… with a finger wagged at the stubborn folks who clung to the old ways), and thus had outgrown the need for medieval accretions and Baroque courtly excrescences. But such talk betrays an utterly superficial way of thinking, a fusion of the imbecilities of Cannegieter and Hegel. In reality, man matures by growing out to the things he loves and the signs he communicates with, and growing in to his own soul, which is experienced as more real and more important than the ephemeral and transient world.

This is the Christian addressed by (and, in a certain sense, created by) the traditional liturgy. This liturgy, too, has matured over great ages, expanding outward to encompass all the symbols it could reach, and moving inward by developing fully its own inner potentialities, becoming ever more itself.[5] This liturgy beckons and forms man in its image. Its sign-saturation becomes, over time, our sign-language. We think and feel in the images, words, and gestures it offers to us and inculcates in us.

Let us remember, with St. Thomas, the profound symbolism of incense, which should be in front of our eyes, filling our nostrils, clouding our imagination, and concentrating our minds. Its burning up, releasing billows of smoke and fragrance, is the offering of our hearts to God in sweet sacrifice that lifts us up to His throne in adoration. It is the outward sign of our inward devotion, and while it does not effect what it signifies, it affects what it permeates.


[1] In IV Sent., d. 1, q. 2, art. 5, qa. 1, obj. 3: “Praeterea, figuralia quae significant id quod semper faciendum est, non debet cessare, sicut de thurificatione, quae significat devotionem, patet.”

[2] “Thus in Italia non erat antiquitus adhibitum in Sacris Deorum Gentilium. Quisque ad Deos ferebat quod obvium erat, mel, vinum, lac, plerique vero fruges, aut frugum primitias; deinde dabant quae ex frugibus his fiebant, farra et liba. Verum posteaquam Thus ex Arabia in Graeciam, atque in Italiam advectum est, quanquam magnis impensis Romam asportabatur, facile tamen tantillum inde comparabant cujusque fortunae homines etiam tenuissimi, quod Deo libarent. Pauperes tribus digitis tria grana thuris offerebant. Sed thuris usus in cultu veri Dei antiquissimus est. Unde reprobandus est Henricus Cannegieter asserens propositiones sequentes: 1. Christiani abhorruerunt a thuris usu in sacris; 2. Thymiamata ex thure in vetere Ecclesia nulla fuerunt.”

[3] Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §217, p. 131.

[4] “Sanctitas enim importat puritatem consecratam deo” (Super ad Heb. 7, lec. 4). At Summa theologiae II-II, q. 81, a. 8, Thomas notes that the word sanctus may be derived from sanguine tinctus, sprinkled in blood. This purifying consecration and consecrated purity comes not from ourselves, but from Christ alone (cf. Heb. 9:14–15; Heb. 10:19; Jn. 1:12–13; 1 Th. 4:3).

[5] Nota bene, ever more itself—which is precisely why one must question the bizarre Byzantinisms grafted on to the Roman rite in the liturgical reform.

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