Monday, February 10, 2020

Benedictine Monks on Incense: Sourcing It and Making It

Boswellia sacra, the source of frankincense
I recently visited a Benedictine monastery known for its excellent liturgical life. At Mass on Epiphany, the celebrant said the following in the course of his homily:
Frankincense represents the costly spiritual sacrifice that is adoration; frankincense is the vital essence of the tree that produces it; it is, if you will, the lifeblood of the tree. The tree is slashed, and the precious essence bleeds out of it. One who would adore in spirit must be ready to be stripped and slashed, like the frankincense tree, so as to give the blood of one’s very essence in sacrifice. A sacrifice that is measured, and calculated, and weighed, is no sacrifice at all. It cannot be a spiritual sacrifice, that is one worthy of God who created us in His image and likeness to participate in the royal priesthood and in the victimhood of His Son.
Given the symbolism not only of incense but even of how incense is produced, harvested, and purchased at a price, it seemed altogether fitting that the same chapel in which these words were spoken should be filled with the smoke of an incense that, to my nose, smelled better than others I had experienced — less smoky and resiny, more of a pure fragrance, almost like a spirit without a body. No matter how much was burned, the chapel still seemed full of breathable air. This contrasted with experiences I’ve had where the incense starts to make my throat tighten up or my eyes water a bit, and where one can start to wish for fresh air.

So I decided to ask the sacristan monk about the incense they were using, and he gave me quite a bit of interesting information!

Given the love of NLM readers for all things beautiful and liturgically proper, I thought I should share what he wrote to me, in case it might be of interest or aid to anyone. Then, at the end of the article, I attach a page from the most recent newsletter of the Monks of Norcia, telling of how Br. Anthony has learned the art of making the monastery’s incense. The article begins with edifying reflections on why we use incense to begin with.

* * *
We purchase most of our incense (and altar wine) through Holy Art. There are Italian, French, German, British, Polish, American, &c., versions of this site, and the prices do differ slightly. It seems we use the Italian version most often.

That said, pure frankincense is suitable for the Roman Rite at all times. Of late, I have been experimenting with varieties from Ethiopia and Somalia; at present, we’re using this variety for tempore per annum and for Exposition and Benediction [pictured below]. It has a warm, slightly tangerine scent. It came in a 1 kg package: we began using it every Sunday beginning on Pentecost and ending on the first Sunday of Advent, and still we have some left over. Note that the website has various search filters that make it easy to find what one is looking for. Any incenses on this page would seem safe to consider as well.

For Epiphany, I take up the mortar and pestle and simply grind up pure myrrh and add it to pure frankincense and it is wonderful.

I’m no physician, but the problem with many Roman-style incenses is, I suspect, the various additives. Incense makers begin with a base of frankincense, but then add various perfumes, sometimes fragments of scented woods, &c. N. Abbey incense [name withheld] is a fine example. They seem to be the classic choice in the traditional anglophone world. I think the quality is good, but they still add various essential oils, &c. Even if all the ingredients are of high quality, when you burn them there is still the resulting chemical reaction to account for. By using pure frankincense, one eliminates all the additives, and possibly thereby the allergic reactions people may be having.

The cheaper brands are probably little more than wood and paper soaked in essential oils.

As for Byzantine-style incenses, we use them for Mass and Vespers of festivals; however, I’m less certain about their composition. They are, more often than not, perfumed. That said, none of the brothers have ever found them a difficulty, and we’ve used many varieties. The rose-scented kind I’ve been using during the Christmas octave did not come from the above website, but it would be typical of what you’d find here. I intend to try a few of the offerings from the Bethlehem Monks. The only drawback is that, in my experience, many priests are unaccustomed to using the Byzantine style, where the grains are larger and it takes slightly longer for them to catch and begin to burn.

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