Spirituality and the Sense of Smell

Last Sunday afternoon, my family and I took a walk in a park along the Old Man River in Southern Alberta. The gusty west winds had done their job relieving the old Poplar trees of their leaves. The gusty wind was shifting, and swirling the fallen leaves on the ground. With each step, the crunch of the fallen dried leaves served as natures reverb.

With the brisk fresh westerly blowing through the trees I was struck by a uniquely autumn fragrance. The fragrance of freshly fallen leaves. Putting words to such a fragrance is difficult for me - I suppose to use the adjective "leafiness" wouldn't be much help, so I have to trust that perhaps you too have had a similar experience.

The smell of the leaves filled my senses, and it brought back some wonderful memories from my childhood. Happy days running through the deciduous forest at my grandparent's cottage in Northern Ontario. In my mind, I was transported 35 years into the past, and in a very real way, I could see the cottage, the boat dock, and then my grandparents. With that came a sense of contentment and a smile took shape on my face. I was reminded of a simpler time in my life. I was also reminded of my grandfather's tall tales about his horse that pulled the bread wagon and jumped the pot holes, and the time making a teepee with my grandma and how our intended campout was nixed by a severe thunderstorm!

I was grateful for the gift of the leafy smell of the fallen leaves on our family walk yesterday. Thankful that the smell stimulated a part of my brain that held such wonderful memories.

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.” 
- Vladimir Nabokov

Perhaps sometimes taken for granted, our sense of smell is a very primal sense for human beings. Consider the connection of moms and their babies; from birth, the sense of smell can produce a sense of connection and sense of security and well-being for both mom and baby.

Many smells are associated with our memories - the pine scent of a fresh Christmas tree, the smoke from a wood fire or a turkey cooking in the oven can transport us back to holiday memories and times with family. The smell of a summer rain shower as the cool rain hits the hot pavement or the smell of freshly mowed grass can be comforting and loaded with an array of powerful emotions.

(Yes, some scents can also take us to some unpleasant memories too.)

Certain kinds of fragrances interact with specific areas of our brain that can influence a variety of processes in the body. This area of therapy is often referred to as Aroma Therapy. For example, Lavender oil in a diffuser produces a scent that often produces a calming effect. All this to say that our sense of smell is often under-appreciated in the context of our five sense.

There is also a rich history of fragrances being an integral part of many spiritual traditions. We see references to the burning of incense on the altar, the smoke that filled the temple and some references to the fragrance of the Lord.  So scents can be a wonderful addition to our regular spiritual practices whether we add burning incense or atomizing essential oils, to becoming aware of the various smells during our walks in the forest, prairie, mountains, lake or ocean.  By becoming aware of these smells, it helps us be present in the moment, making us more present.

Ways we can use Scents to enhance our spiritual practice:

  • When we experience an aroma that connects us to a pleasant memory or feelings of contentment, we can be deliberate to pause a moment and enjoy the experience and respond with gratitude for the fond memory and experience. We can be thankful for the gift of the presence of God in that moment.
  • When we experience an aroma that connects us to a more difficult or painful memory, we can also leverage this for our good. In the midst of the pain, pause and acknowledge that God is present as well. Inhale deeply and exhale and acknowledge the memory and the pain. It may be helpful to use the Welcoming Prayer. You may at this juncture invite Holy Spirit into the emotion and then look, listen or smell the fragrance of the Spirit. Pay attention to where the Spirit lingers - what part of the memory or in which emotion. Listen for (a look, feel, smell) what the Spirit may be saying to you - a fresh affirmation or encouragement, a new perspective on the memory. Linger without clutching for as long as you feel the presence of the Spirit. Inhale deeply. Fully exhale. Finish with a prayer of gratitude.


"Earth knows no desolation.  She smells regeneration in the moist breath of decay."
-  George Meredith

  • Scents can be a rich part of prayer. Feel free to experiment with a variety of incense or natural oils. They can be used in a variety of ways like burning incense or using a diffuser with essential oils. These can often bring a different dynamic to your prayer time and can be really rich especially during contemplative prayer.

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