A Week of Gratitude – Catherine Brunell on Smell

This is a guest post by Catherine Brunell.

smellSmell. It is the last sense when we list them and the first we’d let go when posed a “would you rather” question. But smell allows us to taste, and that is something I would never relinquish.

I like this relationship between smell and taste, because it is not unlike what reflection enables in my life. I can chew it up and swallow it, but I cannot know its significance without reflection.

When I am too busy for this kind of prayerful consideration, I come down with a spiritual cold. With blocked passages, I eventually become unable to do anything including that which is keeping me so busy. In these moments, I should follow the steps of getting rid of a real cold: make a cup of tea, curl up on the couch, and rest. In the resting, I will again be able to notice where I feel close to God and when, and perhaps why, I feel distant. As much as smell is essential to taste, so too is reflection to living fully.

As the scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin, and turkey waft our way this season, I invite you to consider a well-known Catholic song. Instead of “Taste and See” though, I offer “Smell and Taste” as a reminder to notice God’s goodness for us all!

Catherine Wiecher Brunell is the author of Becoming Catholic, Again. Find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BecomingCatholicAgain.


  1. says

    Oh, I’ve been waiting for this one! As someone who has never smelled anything (and, therefore, has a limited sense of taste), I’m always interested in how people describe their sense of smell and what it means to them.

    What the lack of it has meant to me: The titles of Chief Litter Box Emptier and Chief Dog De-Skunker.

    Carry on. This will be fascinating to me!

    • Emma says

      Heinrich Zimmer wrote ” The best things are never talked about, the second best things are mostly misunderstood “. That thought came to mind with not only your question, but my own as I read Jane’s response to my own post re sight. How would I describe the color orange to someone who has never seen? How do I describe the scent of a warm, ripened peach as I take the first bite and the juices intermingle with the summer breeze? I can’t. Which then gave me a sense of certainty that we have all seen God, at least once before our earthly sojourn began. If not, we could not “re -member ” God. We would be clutching at words and be inventing God. Yet, we in our best moments move beyond words and experience God. He in us, we in Him.

  2. says

    It is interesting to reflect on smell being essential to taste. This reminds me of Paul writing that we are all part of the body and when one part is missing, we are greatly diminished.

    The sense of smell gives such pleasure as bread bakes in the oven or dinner is placed on the table; nothing is better than the smell of a clean baby (and I emphasize ‘clean’). Our Creator has given us so many gifts.

    • says

      I promise I will be quiet after this. (Until my own post spews itself forth.)

      But Lynda, last night my immediate reaction upon reading your response was to say, “I am NOT diminished by this missing sense!”

      You reminded me of the day on which a friend, whose own mother was MIA, asked me whether I didn’t feel damaged as a result of having grown up without a mother. My answer was an emphatic “No!” I wasn’t about to accept her notion that my life was somehow “less.”

      Now that I have given your (and Paul’s) words more thought, I am intrigued and pondering rather intently: What might it mean to resign ourselves to feeling diminished rather than to claim identity and resourcefulness in who we are?

      This applies to all kinds of things, obviously, as we are all missing in some areas and have received abundantly in others.

      I will now cease and desist from further commenting and give others a chance!

      • Jim says

        Of course, when people say they would be diminished without a sense of smell, a mother, or whatever, they aren’t thinking of the person they would be, only the one they wouldn’t be. They’re thinking of all that would be missing from their lives as if a dark and frightening void would take its place.

      • says

        Hi Robin – The question that you posed, “What might it mean to resign ourselves to feeling diminished rather than to claim identity and resourcefulness in who we are?” is similar to the reflection I offer in my book on a theology of inadequacy. I offer this as an attempt to understand why we forget that we are already enough. I think we forget this when we resign ourselves to feeling diminished. My spiritual journey has been one of retracing my steps over and over God’s profound love in my life. Like my children learn their letters, I trust that this tracing will imprint the knowledge of my belovedness – of the full identity about which you asked – especially when I need it the most. With or without all that one can have, I am complete just as I am.

      • says

        Robin, I really appreciate your response because it makes me think about the language that we use. The question that you pose is so thought-provoking especially when you use the phrase “resign ourselves to feeling diminished”. That was certainly not my intent in what I wrote because I was thinking of the positive side of the gift and also the positive side of Paul’s words which to me mean that everyone is important to the body of Christ. Actually your perspective on what I wrote illustrates Paul’s point that we are all necessary as we bring different gifts and thoughts to the community.

        Thanks very much.

    • says

      Lynda, thank you for taking this connection further: The essential needs that our roles play and how noticing them point us towards gratitude! When we notice, we participate in the grace that much more.

  3. says

    The smell of incense immediately brings me back to the stories of Holy Week and is an integral part of that intense faithful experience. Living with two ShiTzus, I am aware daily of the power of smell and the multitude of things leaving scents all over our world of which we are completely oblivious. You might say we are “blind” to their presence. What else in the world are we unaware of?

  4. says

    What a beautiful reflection. I have an extremely heightened sense of smell – perhaps the opposite of my friend Robin. (Although I have done my share of litter box emptying, and continue to do so!) This sense is remarkably intense for me, and I can’t imagine being without it.

    Connecting smell to taste is brilliant.

    The mention of incense by Linda Ricke brings me to one of my favorite things, something I savor when it happens. I work at a parish.I go over to church to lock up in the late afternoon, and often experience something special. I enter the sanctuary and just STOP if it is a day when we had a funeral.

    Although from hours earlier, the incense scent hangs in the air. I feel as if I can see it in the specs of dust that are visible in the slanted beams of light, and I just STOP. Breathe deeply in. STOP. Breathe deeply out. STOP. This is repeated several times, and is often one of my most profound and intimate contacts with God – all mediated through my sense of smell.

    • says

      Incense is one of those things that is entirely visual for me. Imagine my surprise a few years ago when a friend commented upon its scent! “Incense has a SCENT?” I exclaimed. “What on earth did you think it was about?” asked my friend. I guess I thought it was to create a cool smoky kind of aura. What did I know???

      • Denise J says

        Incense is visual too — “My prayers rise like incense…” says the psalmist. But yes, it smells too. Fran is right, it is a smell that says — no, that shouts, that proclaims — “THIS time, THIS place, is sacred.”

    • says

      Perhaps this is also why scent is connected to memory. It literally stops us in our tracks and ignites a part of our brain that is made for awareness.

      When I smell incense, I am brought back quickly to being a little girl on the altar. I can feel pains in my stomach about the fear I had that I was going to either burn down the church or forget when to bring the clanking metal holder to the priest. The next time I smell it, I’m going to try to borrow your memory!

  5. Jim says

    This post brings up a couple of thoughts.

    First, there is the directionless nature of smell, compared to most of the other senses. Our vision is focused on one object at a time; other objects are either less clear or completely invisible to us. Sound permeates the air, but we generally have a good idea where a given sound is coming from, and we’re built to hear better when we’re facing the source of the sound. Touch and tongue-taste are sensed at the point of physical contact. Odors fill the air, and it takes conscious effort to find the source. For that reason, and because we don’t pay much attention to smells, they often come to us first as an emotion. I get nostalgic walking past a cottonwood, irritable walking by a patch of ragweed, and inspired by pines, but I often don’t realize I’m smelling anything until I see the thing I’m smelling.

    I can understand, then, why incense is almost universally used for religious rituals. The scent seems fill everything, to flow right through your soul. It feels like the presence of God.

    The second thought I had was sparked by Catherine’s analogy between prayerful reflection and the sense of smell. What’s interesting to me is that my wife, an agnostic who could qualify as an atheist (because she has no instinctive sense of any divine presence), has the same syndrome. At her suggestion, we’ve been attending a UU church for the last couple of weeks, and she’s been disappointed that both sermons we’ve attended were political. That’s the risk of attending a UU church immediately before and after Election Day, but it doesn’t meet her needs right now. She has a sort of spiritual head cold, and she is looking for some prayerful reflection to treat it.

    • Emma says

      @Jim………..I’ve been thinking of your post all afternoon and your reference to your wife’s situation. I can thoroughly identify with her situation, having been there not too long ago myself. Oddly enough, it was only after I found and believed in God that I attended any church, and even then, many different ones. The Catholic Church, most of all was a difficult environment for me to find any spiritual nourishment. I would say it was a combination of not understanding the liturgy or ritual and just a general sense of unwelcome formality. I’d been reading Scripture and many many authors, but yet, when I entered the church it was nothing like those inspiring words. Add to that, all the over the top “Jesus Freaks” (present company excluded) and I just did not see Christ in those places! It was the Ignatian Pathway that led me to a deeper understanding, but not first through Jesus. It was looking for God in other things, the stars, the ocean, non-Christians, music, art. It was only then, once I thought that maybe I didn’t “need” to go to church that I decided that I would give it another try and then, only after I had someone willing to go with me and tho’ not explain every detail, at least give me some coaching r/t who was who, what was what, etc. The first time that I attended church, I didn’t even know that I was supposed to come with money for an offerring. It was horribly embarassing. “I didn’t know that I was supposed to PAY!!!” I ended up putting my limited food money into the offerring. Or, “Why are they carrying that book down the aisle?” or, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that I was supposed to kneel and genuflect before I sat down!!” I thought all eyes were on me and already casting stones! It was horrible!! I do know that you’re a man of music. I don’t know how old your wife is, but a good introduction to Christianity and Christian Thought is contemporary Christian Music. I don’t mean “Catholic Radio” (I won’t put out here what I think of that, lest I hurt someone’s feelings), but you might want to try just listening to some of that music. Try……Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin, Mercy Me, Tenth Ave. North, Toby Mac, Mandisa, Amy Grant, Natalie Grant, Bldg. 429 (especially “Listen to the Sound”), Matt Maher, The Newsboys (these guys are GREAT!!!!), Brandon Heath(“Give Me Your Eyes” is a good one), Revive, (“Blink”) David Crowder Band, too, too many. This is good, spirit filled music that speaks to contemporary society without being preachy!!! I’m thinking that beings you have a young son that the two of you are not too much older than I am, and might like this stuff!!(unless, you’re like Tim, he’s an oldster, but he “gets it” :) ). But try it. You might just find something that you’ll enjoy listening to yourself (or, being a musician/ecologist) a side job or venue for ministery yourself :)

      • Jim says

        Emma, thanks for the music recommendations. My wife likes a wide variety of music genres (you could say she has catholic tastes), so there might be something in your list she could get into. Your aversion to “Jesus freaks” is a good sign, I think.

        Your post has me thinking of another approach, too. Specifically, the part about the Ignatian Pathway leading you to a deeper understanding, but not, at first, through Jesus. My wife may never be able to point to the way art, music, exercise, love, a very good sermon, or other kinds of beauty make her feel and say, “that’s God,” but I can point to those things and say, “this is where it’s easy for me to see God. This is what the presence of God feels like. Call it whatever you like.”

        Similarly, I can show my son what I mean by God in that way. Personally, I think the most important concepts God wants us to understand are the most basic and general: center your life around God (by whatever name you can live with), love your neighbor (which is everyone), and forgive people for their failings (where “people” includes you). These are the things that go by the wayside when people get too attached to the Word and forget to consult the Author.

  6. Tim says

    I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some. ― Herbert Rappaport

    • Emma says

      I am!! Daffodils and California Poppies! or at least a participant. Rico digs the holes for the bulbs, I go behind, dropping them in and covering them. He said here he spent enormous effort to ensure that he wouldn’t spend his life working in the fields only to get married and end up digging holes :) I say the best needs to be uncovered :) at least they’re perennials.

    • says

      (Somehow this ended up under Jim’s poignant comment….sigh!)

      This made me laugh, Tim! That’s the sixth sense that’s missing from Paul’s list…the sense of humor.

  7. Emma says

    This is driving me crazy!! Can anyone tell me where this blog is posted from? It’s a little past 11am in Ca, but my posts are timed 7pm which is a difference of 8hrs. That’s much too lg a gap to account for a difference in time zone between Chicago and Ca. Not of great importance to most, but I have this obsessive /compulsive tendency that won’t let me let go of this! Aaarghh! Can someone put my mind at rest?

    • Denise J says

      Lots of websites use Universal Coordinated Time, or Greenwich Mean Time, or Zulu Time (which are all pretty much the same time) to time-stamp their posts. I think that is what is happening — but maybe Denise can confirm?

      It was about 3:13 here on the east cost when I posted below, and it is stamped 8:13, which corresponds with the time in Greenwich.

      Hope this helps

      The other Denise

  8. Denise J says

    Catherine — I LOVE your image of a “spiritual cold.” I promise to come back to this when I start feeling stressed before Christmas. But when I do – can I then curl up with some mulled wine instead of tea to relieve my symptoms?

    Fran — I also appear to have a stronger sense of smell than anyone in my immediate family. While my house is cat-free — and will sadly remain so, as long as I am blessed with my hyper-allergic husband — I seem to be the only one who can open the front door and know, instantly, whether the dog’s been a good girl or not. And since it bothers me more than anyone else, I too have done more than my fair share of dog doo-ty.

    I am grateful for so many smells, and for the memories and the responses they trigger. The smell of ocean spray releases tensions I don’t even notice till they are gone, and makes me want to run and jump and play in the waves — even in winter! The smell of pine brings back happy memories from so many Christmas mornings. Every time I walk into a big hardware store, my husaband and kids roll their eyes when I tell them, again, how I love the smell of fresh cut lumber, and how it reminds me of my grandfather helping my parents remodel bits of our ouse. “Nana” would place unwrapped bars of Ivory soap in her linen closet — and that smell still makes me feel like I am being wrapped up in one of her afghans.

    Thank you for the call to reflect on all of this today.

  9. says

    I know that I promised to refrain from further comment, and probably no one will see this anyway, but I do want to say how much I’ve enjoyed this week and especially the questions raised about gratitude and adequacy and diminishment and enough — all those Walter Brueggemann questions of limitation and abundance.

    • says

      It has been a good week with interesting and thought-provoking dialogue. What a gift it is to be able to discuss such issues in this open and caring environment.

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