Does Your Church Smell?

I had read two books on Orthodox Christianity. Thats it. So obviously, I had no idea what to expect when I visited St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church for its Sixth Hour Prayer service. What I did know was that for some time now, Id felt a deep desire to silence myself before the Lord, and felt led to do this mid-week in a local church. A faith tradition dating back almost 2,000 years ago, I figured Orthodoxy would have much to offer in the way of ancient worship practices.

A kind lady walked into the church with me and directed me to the chapel. Prayer services werent held in the Sanctuary, but in a smaller room filled with short, wooden pews and a variety of iconic images. In the center at the front, there was an open window with a drawn curtain in front of it. Off stage right, there was a rotating lectern displaying two or three older-looking books. I walked past the icon painting sitting on a wooden stand in the center of the small entrance and settled into an empty pew, two rows from the back. I wasnt opposed to mingling with others that day, but more than anything, Id come to sit in the fellowship of silence with our Father.

Right away, I noticed the room had a pleasant aroma. I observed several glass containers, about the size of a votive candle holder, suspended in front of more paintings on the wall. In these days of essential oils, I felt myself relaxing as I deeply inhaled the scent of burning incense. Slowly, I exhaled and felt stress releasing some of its tight grip on my shoulders. I sat in the very silence Id been craving and waited for the service to begin.

Forty-some years on this earth, and this was the first time Id ever experienced prayer with my Orthodox brothers and sisters. For some time, Ive ventured out to attend various services with the Catholics. When I worship with them, I dip my hands in the holy water found at the entrance with great spiritual delight. Feeling the water moisten my fingertips, a tangible signal to alert my heart, better preparing me for worship.

Perhaps the key element to these services though, for me, is how they incorporate silence. All over this planet, we hustle and bustle non-stop every day. The fact that I can sit in unhurried silence as the priests move from one facet of the service to another, screams sacred to me. As if there just might be a place left in this world where we can focus on what is holy and true.

I could go on and on about the ministry my eyes receive when I sit in these churches. They arent concerned about the latest worship trends on Pinterest. For thousands of years, theyve offered artwork depicting various saints, including men and women from the Bible.

Many of these things are missing from the Evangelical churches Ive always called home. Often, I engage only two of my senses on a Sunday morning. I observe a stage colorfully decorated based on the seasons of the year, and my ears are bombarded with a cacophony of praise music, words composing a sermon and believers engaged in fellowship. Does our decor remind believers of the tie that binds us to an ancient faith? When are we ever silent so we can actually talk to God? As for taste, we only take Communion every so often.

What say you? Does your church smell? This father, who created us with the ability to experience our world through sight, smell, sound, touch and taste – wouldnt he have us worship with all five senses? I read online about others who are exploring these ancient practices, and it helps that Im not alone.

Im not looking for a new church. God has set me firmly in the Evangelical tradition, and he whispers ongoing affirmations of my place among them. But I cant get over the smell of that incense. Every time I enter a sanctuary, my fingers long for a touch of holy water, signifying to my heart I am there for a purpose. I might, just might, go online and see if I can order these materials myself, and start smuggling them in with me on Sunday mornings.

Traci Rhoades
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Traci Rhoades

Writer at Traces of Faith
My name is Traci. I live in southwest Michigan. Somewhere in a triangular section connecting Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids with all things Lake Michigan. My husband and I parent one daughter. We have dogs, cats, pigs, chickens and ducks. Their number is always changing, as farm animal counts tends to do. I enjoy watching sports, reading, cooking and all things Bible study. I am a writer.
Traci Rhoades
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  • Joanne Peterson

    The longer I am on this earth and the longer I’m a believer and follower of Christ, the more I appreciate the silence, the fragrance, the five senses in worship. I am also in an evangelical church, but the traditions reminding us we are in the presence of Christ are sacred, reverent, and comforting. Thank you for pointing this out.

    • Joanne, The longer I am on this earth… I like how you tie these revelations to age (and perhaps spiritual maturity). My faith needs a balance of both then and now these days, and I’m enjoying that journey.

  • Kate, I’ve saved your response because I need to read through it pieces at a time – such good information. It sounds like your experience at the Byzantine Catholic skete is similar to what I found in the Orthodox church. I wrote in another post about this experience – we said the Jesus Prayer 42 times! It’s all very new to me. Thank you for all you provided me with here. I’ll enjoy the research process.

    • Please feel free to reach out about any questions. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about the Catholic Church. Happy researching!

  • Ingrid Lochamire

    Traci, I have also been drawn to more “traditional” faith practices, including the Catholicism that formed me in childhood. I have yet to attend services in an Orthodox church, but I explored a very beautiful one in Tarpon Springs, Florida a few years back. I am comfortable as an evangelical Christian, but why can’t our relationship with Jesus be flavored by all practices that speak to us? Liturgy has been especially important to me over the past year. I think God is pleased that you’ve opened your heart and your mind to the many ways of worshipping the One True God.

    • Ingrid, I still remember your piece about being surprised at the draw back to your Catholic roots. I grew up Protestant, but I tell you, an individual is missing out on A LOT if they don’t explore traditional liturgy. I have found the Orthodox Christian church very welcoming and open to questions.

  • Leslie Carson Albizzatti

    This was a beautiful post Traci! There is so much we can learn from other denominations. I am Catholic and sometimes forget the beauty of worshipping with all the senses, so thank you for reminding me. Your post has helped me to realize to be more grateful. I also love attending other services. Some do worship and praise music really well, others have phenomenal speakers. We are blessed in this country to have access to so many ways to worship God. Thank you again. This was wonderful!!

    • Leslie, Thank you for taking the time to leave me a few thoughts. I’m glad I could remind you of the richness of how Catholics worship! Truly, I always enjoy it. You’re right, every church offers something a little different. I love the variety.

  • sosomom

    Incense really improved my experience after becoming Catholic.

    • I would have never thought of the smell enhancing my worship until it did! So true.

  • Rea

    I’ve spent most of my life in fairly simple churches that didn’t draw heavily on all of the senses in worship. Then my husband and I joined a church where the pastor drew heavily from several streams of Christianity…evangelicalism, liturgical, anabaptist and charismatic. It was a beautiful blend of icons, praise music, silent listening time, good teaching, and ancient creeds. I began to value so much of what those bring to the worship experience. I miss them now in our new church setting, and am reminded that I can also learn to make space for them in my everyday life. (I begin to see the beauty of different faith traditions which set up a small space in the home with icons, candles, etc.)

  • Frances Reighley

    Yes, yes, yes!!! For some time now I too have been exploring how important the senses are to my overall worship and journey with the Lord. Years ago I left a non-denominational church and started going to an Episcopal church. I was raised Catholic so it was like going home – tradition! Right from the start I realized that part of me felt starved for the visual elements (stained glass windows – some were even Tiffany windows, statues, priests in robes, candles, etc.) instead of a rec. room that you could also play basket ball in. Then, the priest came in swinging the incense, my nose came alive and I remembered the verse about prayers floating up to God like incense. Even the pews (after sitting in folding chairs for so long) felt right – so right to slide close to a neighbor and actually touch. Communion was suddenly every Sunday, not just once a month. And yes, the holy water and holy oil – such important elements. Ahhh… makes me feel good just thinking about all of it.

    Fast forward another 23 years to today… I’m in another state and in another non-denominational church. However, I have never forgot the importance of the 5 senses in worship and walk. Everyday I hear God through more than just my hearing sense. I believe he desires us to soak in all of Him and the best way is by using all our senses, all day long. Such an adventure!

  • Randy

    I’m a (cradle) orthodox Christian, I was born,baptized, and raised in Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church I’m thrilled that you had such a wonderful experience with our service that Wednesday noon. That service, is just sort of a prayer retreat but it is a very very small part of a religion that hasn’t really changed the way we worship Christ or God in 2000 years. Let me invite you to our Sunday Divine Liturgy, it starts promptly at 10am. You may be surprised at your own reaction.

    • Gretchen

      Yes! I echo Randy’s invitation to join us at a liturgy! I love 6th hour prayers on Wednesday afternoons, but it is just a small taste of what it’s like to be in liturgy. It’s the one place where I truly feel “home” and completely at peace -except when I’m having to deal with my squirmy children 😉 Anyway, so glad you enjoyed the service. Please come again!