Incense And The Catholic Mind.

More important than you think....

It sometimes happens that I attend the 12:30 mass instead of the 11:00 Mass. What always strikes me on those occasions is, on entering the church, a strong smell of incense. The fact is, that the 10:00 Mass doesn’t have the massive use of incense of the solemn mass at 11:00; therefore, coming in after the end of the 11:00 mass you immediately notice the difference.

Every time that this happens I can’t avoid noticing what the Protestants (most of them, at least) miss not only from a theological point of view (because they are heretics) but from a more practical, eminently human one.

Catholicism is so complete, so wise, so beautifully constructed in all its details. The little gestures and smells and rituals that are so closely identified with Catholic tradition are a help to the faithful rather than a show of pomp or an ungodly fondness for rituals. At the same time, they connect him with his deeper nature rather than creating a separation between what he thinks and what he is.

When you get into a Catholic church, you are supposed to enter a different world. A world which in its isolation from the outside environment wants to be a prefiguration of the world to come. Walls will be as thick as affordable. Doors will isolate you from the outside as much as practicable. Once inside, you will notice the smell of incense and this will immediately – in an automatic, unconscious reflex similar to the one of Pavlov’s dogs – tell you on a more profound level than the intellectual one that you are now in a sacred place. You look for the stoop and again something happens that is unique to the church: the contact of your forehead with the cold holy water. Around you, the environment is also unique: the building is more or less ornate, generally as much as economic possibilities allow. This is different from everything you see outside and not only does remind you of Christianity at every turn and in every inch (the paintings, the painted glass, the statues, the stations of the cross, the pulpit, the sanctuary with the altar and the Tabernacle, and so on), but it literally leads you to a world you won’t find anywhere else.

It goes on. Silence – a typical trait of every church not defiled by post Vatican-II madness and postmodern ignorance and rudeness – is your almost constant companion. Even tourists go around exchanging, if at all, merely short whispers. This is very natural to them, as the silence is overwhelming and everything they see and smell around them tells them that….. they are now in another world. If the church is not immersed in its solemn silence, an organ might be playing and here again, the assault on your senses is overwhelming.

You see here how a properly made Catholic church embraces all of you at an emotional, elementary level. Sight (the decoration), smell (the incense), hearing (the music, or the silence), touch (the holy water) are involved in a unique way, a way immediately predisposing you to prayer and meditation.

This may seem unnecessary frill and unholy complication to a Protestant mind, but in reality only shows one of the typical traits of Catholic mentality: their connection with the entire being as opposed to the cold cerebral approach so typical of many Protestants. In turn, this natural desire to let all their senses participate to their devotion is – and I can say this with full, first-hand knowledge, having extensively lived in both worlds – so typical of the mediterranean culture, which without any doubt is much more in touch with their inner being than the Peoples of the colder Protestant regions. And one would be tempted to wonder whether it is their connection with their emotions that makes of southern Europeans “natural Catholics”, or whether they are so well-connected to their emotions because they have been raised, for countless generations, as Catholics. If you look at the Germans – a people who, by all their differences and cultural nuances, still are pretty much identifiable as a cultural homogeneous region – you can’t avoid noticing the differences in the most minute details (up to the way they walk, talk, move their facial muscles, laugh!) between the Catholic regions (the Rhineland and, most notably, Bavaria) and the traditionally Protestant regions in the North and East.

When I first went to Munich, I felt like in Italy. When I first went to Berlin, I felt as if half the people around me were thinking about suicide.

Tutto si tiene, Cavour used to say and as an Italian abroad you see the way everything is tied together. Catholicism talks to your senses, and involves them; it does so with the same unspoiled, unadulterated naturalness and relaxedness Northern European Peoples invariably notice in Southern European ones (and yes: Southern Europeans invariably notice the underlying stiffness, the subtle “woodenness” of their North European counterparts).

Southern Europeans do not spend time asking whether incense has a place in church. They know it has, and that there’s no reason to be cerebral about it. The mere posing of the question would seem extraordinary to them. They are like Catholicism, probably because Catholicism made them that way: naturally embracing the truth rather than letting their own little neuroses and ego-driven exercises having the best of themselves. They naturally embrace their entire being (not only their mind, but their body and feelings) and let them participate of whatever they do (ever noticed how often Southern Europeans touch each other? Try that in Mecklemburg-Vorpommern!). And they are, in general, more at peace with themselves, which is what creates that sense of naturalness foreigners seem to love so much of us Italians (and that Italians invariably never notice in themselves, until they start living among Northern Europeans).

You see, then, how authentic Catholicism helps to create more – hoping not to be offensive, but using an expression that I have often heard from foreigners – “authentic” people. People more in touch with their own nature, instead of constantly wondering what is wrong with it or even trying to change it.

Next time you smell the incense in your church, breathe it fully and let yourself immerse in the beautifully spiritual atmosphere it creates; let the surrounding walls with their tales of faith and hope embrace you with the loving embrace of Christ; let the cold impact of the holy water on your forehead remind you – on a physical level – that you are now in a very special place; let all your senses participate of your experience; leave behind you all the puritan rigidity and coldness that you have so often experienced in your Anglo-Saxon climate; accept what the wisdom of countless generations has naturally accepted as a natural way of worship – the splendour of the decoration, the sacredness of the incense, the beauty of the organ or the solemnity of the silence – and let your heart and your entire being feel that you are in a sacred place.

The Catholic enters his splendidly decorated church, and knows – without even thinking about it – that this is just right. The Protestant enters the very same church, and starts questioning why the money hasn’t been spent on social causes. The first is a whole person, the second a victim of his belaboring brain.


Posted on April 12, 2011, in Catholicism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. A fascinating post.

    I read in Ireland and the Vatican: The Politics and Diplomacy of Church-State Relations, 1922-1960 a remark of Pius XI about the Irish (at that time) being radically different from the English in character and more laid back. The Holy Father believed this was due to the Puritan influence in English culture.

    As an Italian, have you noticed that in English society? Do you find the demeanor of the people to be more austere than that of Italians? How influenced by Protestantism is modern British society IYO?

    • I notice it every day and I’d say that the influence is diffuse, but massive.

      It is, in fact, so strong that it is even difficult to explain it to a Brit who hasn’t lived extensively in, say, Italy, or France.

      The Italian attitude is:
      1) we know there are rules
      2) we know we are sinners
      3) we do not question the rules, but we don’t torture ourselves with our sins.

      The Anglo-Saxon attitude is:
      1) we know there are rules
      2) we want to be perfect
      3) but we are sinners
      4) so we either torture ourselves, or
      5) decide that the sin is not a sin anymore

      Anglo-Saxons can’t live with their sinful nature. They either take refuge into Puritanism – I suspect, because they can’t accept their neighbours to be “holier” (in their perception) than they are – or they react by saying that hey, the Holy Ghost has changed his mind. Orgy of Puritanism, or escape into Episcopalianism.

      I see this in many Catholics here, which is rather natural. There are Catholics here that have Protestants in their family, many others are influenced in a more general way. This has an influence on them, sometimes a massive one.

      Doesn’t happen in Italy. Protestants – to all practical purposes – do not exist, and the Catholic mentality is factually unchallenged by all those who aren’t openly atheist; but interestingly, even many who are atheists openly share many traits of Catholic culture. This doesn’t happen here, where an atheist is much more often engaged in a battle of values than this is the case in Italy. I think many more atheists go to hell in England than in Italy, because in Italy most atheists have taken the respect for the Virgin Mary and a certain awe in front of religion from their mother’s milk, and that stays. “In Italy we are all Catholics”, Benedetto Croce once said and whilst this is not as true anymore as it was 50 or 100 years ago, it is still the pillar of our social organisation.

      Moreover, in England there are many who have a confused concept of right and wrong, because they haven’t been properly instructed. They haven’t a fix set of values transmitted to them by their parents (when they have them). They therefore take bits and pieces where they can and mix religious morals with the new, “social” (im)morality. Doesn’t happen in Italy either, because in Italy values are still very largely homogeneous and there is much more consensus (see above) as to what is right and what is wrong.

      In Italy, Catholic values are transmitted through social vehicles (family, friends, even not churchgoing ones) in a fully natural way. So natural in fact, that they discover only once abroad that these values are not social values, but specifically Catholic ones. An Italian with an average amount of common sense would never think that an obese person has a genetic problem. He thinks that he must eat less and exercise more. If asked to give to the phenomenon a name, he would naturally say: ingordigia (gluttony); but not in a “religious” sense, purely as a factual observation, and the atheist as well as the believer. If told that he is being politically incorrect, he would – again, atheist or not – laugh with gusto. If told that he is being “judgemental”, he’d have a problem in understanding what you are meaning by that and once understood, would laugh with even more pleasure.

      The Catholic environment calls the moral shots and it does it without the sting of “puritanism” but without the falseness of “episcopalianism”.

      The expression “holier than thou” has no obvious equivalent in Italian, because the game is not played (and it is not played, because it would give no advantage whatsoever to the one who would dare to play it).
      Similarly, the expression “you are judging me” in the negative sense is not used, because if you do wrong of course people will tell you and they aren’t so stupid or confused as to believe that this be un-Christian.

      Again, it’ s difficult to explain. One must go and live in Italy of France. Friends of mine who have made so (from Germany, or the UK) say the same things, in reverse. A dear friend of mine, a German with a great exposure to Italy, once said to me “in Italy marriages work because irrespective of political ideals, social conditions and other differences, you all have the same values and ideas. Every man knows what is expected from him, every woman does the same, and everyone shares the same basic moral concepts”.
      Well said, my boy. It’s called Catholicism.

      Fascinating, I must admit. 😉


  2. Mundabor, I’m indebted to you for that glorious feast of a comment. Many thanks.

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