Not long ago I happened by a small construction site directly after some kind of mishap had occurred, but apparently not one so dramatic that any of the men there seemed bothered by it. My only clue: the strong smell, filling the air, of an electrical fire and singed hair.
Immediately a long-forgotten file in my brain popped open and I was taken back to a warm summer night in Brasilia, Brazil when a group of us teenage boys walked down the dimly lit street to catch a bus into town to see a film. As we waited around at the bus stop, goofing off, a small monkey ran out of the brush and scampered up a nearby pole which bore the neighborhood’s power lines. We watched as he reached the top and stopped to peer down at us from above; then held our collective breath as he started to move around again, exploring his vantage point. Suddenly there was the shortest of shrieks followed by an almighty sizzling sound as 440 volts moved through that tiny creature. His body jerked and smoked, sparks quickly turning to flames, and then to our utter amazement his head shot off and arched slowly through the dark air like a burning tennis ball-sized Icarus falling to earth. This spectacle was so unexpected and so impressive that, being teenage boys, we hooted and laughed and clapped each other on the back. Forget the film! Steven Spielberg could not have done better. We headed for one of our neighborhood hang-outs instead with plenty to talk about for days to come.
I’ve read somewhere that the sense of smell is perhaps more strongly tied to specific memories than any of our other senses. I know this is true for me. The smell of a wood fire always takes me back to my first visit to Renata’s parent’s home on Vancouver Island. Warm rain on a greasy pavement, mixed with cigarette smoke, brings up images of the bus station in Rio de Janeiro. The smell of gasoline exhaust on a crisp winter morning transports me to the curbside drop-off zone at Palm City Elementary School in Florida.
Last week at our parish Bible study Bishop Dick, quite the Old Testament scholar, was taking us through the story of Jacob and Esau. He pointed out how often the story’s plot depends on senses other than seeing: touching, tasting, smelling and, especially, hearing. In the Old Testament, seeing is not believing. The ancient Hebrew writers knew that our eyes are easily fooled, so of all the five senses it is “hearing” that is most trusted. Hearing is believing. (A cultural preference that perhaps lives on in the Middle East today in the call of the muezzin?)
It may be that one of the reasons some of the traditional churches, the Orthodox for example, are attracting young people today is that they offer a full range of sensory experiences in worship. Their churches are a feast for the eyes, but there is also rich music and chanting for the ear, incense for the nose. Just a thought; I’ll leave it to the sociologists and cultural anthropologists to explain.
For myself, I have been reminded that too often I want to see God do something rather than listening for his voice. In worship, I need to come to my senses.