Monthly Archives: August 2011

Incensed About Incense

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I’m like a magpie–I like shiny things.  And I like fire.  (And funnily enough, I’m not overenthusiastic about diamonds… ba-dum-kssh.)  And I swear that these weaknesses of mine are not the only reasons I love being Catholic.  Honestly.  They’re just part of it.

Starting a post like that, you’d imagine I’m going to start talking about something related to candles–maybe the Benedictine setup of the altar, with six shiny candlesticks with lit candles and a beautiful crucifix in the center.  Nope!  As the title says, I like incense.  A lot.  I didn’t, so much, when I was little… or in the days when I used to be an altar server (this is NOT a discussion about girls on the altar) and held the position of thurifer and had to breathe in the smoke at close quarters.  But as I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve grown in my appreciation for the beauty of incense.

Many people claim that incense is symbolic in that the smoke, like our prayers, rises up to heaven and reaches God.  This is backed up by Revelation (where the Mass is described as “heavenly worship”): the prayers of the saints ride upon the smoke of incense.  I’ve also heard that the scent of incense pleases our Lord, as referenced in Leviticus when frankincense was part of a cereal offering–an offering of grain.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has a very long and rich history of incense.  Because Catholicism is, basically, the completion of Judaism–the New Covenant, as compared to the Old–it is vital to understand just how much tradition comes to Catholicism from the Old Law.  Incense is part of an Old Covenant sin offering, which is not only a burnt offering of an animal but also of incense.  Frequently in Leviticus is it mentioned that something is burned “because its scent pleases the Lord.”

Traditionally, incense is primarily frankincense, a resin extracted from a particular tree, much like sap.  Some forms of incense are pure resin, others can be ground into a powder.  Still others are simply pieces of wood soaked with the resin.  Frankincense has always been a symbol of a sacrifice–hence its importance when the Magi presented it to the Christ child upon their visitation.  The etymology of the word “frankincense” adds to its symbolism: it is from Old French–franc encens, or “pure incense.”  Additional scents and ingredients may be mixed into incense–traditionally between four and thirteen extra ingredients.  These seemingly random numbers originate in the Old Law of the Jews.  Sometimes myrrh will be added to the mix: this is doubly symbolic, as myrrh was used for embalming during Egyptian times (representative of Christ’s death) and also because it calls back to both the Old and New Testaments.  Myrrh was part of the consecrated incense in the Old Law.  In the New Testament, it is another gift from the Magi to the Christ child.  If additional scents are added, they are commonly floral.

The Eastern Rite tends to use more incense than the Western Rite.  Why this is, I don’t know–I do know, however, that our prayers are carried upon the smoke of incense.  And why on earth we would not take advantage of that beautiful method of prayer is beyond me.  So, I say to all my fellow Western Rite Catholics–burn, baby, burn… incense, at least.

——-TL;DR?——-

– Incense carries our prayers to God and the scent pleases Him

– Incense mix recipe is a carry-over from the Old Law

– Used in the heavenly liturgy described in Revelation

– Usually primarily frankincense and myrrh but can have additional ingredients and scents

The one thing I can do

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It’s easy to be overcome by worries and cares, whether considering one’s own affairs or those of the wider world. This is especially the case, in my experience, when occupying one’s thoughts for any considerable amount of time on the present condition of the Church and of the wider culture in the West. Be it keeping up with blogs about the great spiritual and moral crisis we face today, or embroiling oneself in one of so many popular (and often quite heated) debates, it becomes easy to focus exceedingly on the wider, big-picture problems of today, often to the detriment of what God places immediately before us. Many of us will never engage with these culture-wide or international problems on a scale comparable to their own. Rather, for most of us our direct sphere of influence– at least as far as we’ll ever notice– will only ever extend to those whom we will meet face to face, those tasks which are given to us simply as duties to state. But once we remember that, each one of us must act on that knowledge: the decisions we make that will ultimately have the greatest range of consequences will often be those made closest to home.

That’s above all the case with how our actions affect us as images of God created to enjoy everlasting life. Each generation faces a different set of problems than the last, but the strong, loving hand of God guides each of them through its course. Throughout it all, what will never change is what I’m capable of: in the end, the only important thing I have any say in is what happens to my soul after I die. My actions may affect a great deal more, yes, but my actions must be framed by the knowledge that the best thing I can do with all my life is cooperate with God, who will provide all things for our salvation. Even if I spend my whole life in activism for all the right causes (all very good as far as they go, truly) but neglect to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength– then at best everything I have done will have counted for nothing. But if I live in total self-giving to God, doing my best to seek Him and not myself, trust Him and not myself, love Him and not myself– then no matter of what little consequence my life will have appeared to be, if I have loved Him with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength, I will have done the only thing worth doing; and, more likely than not, I will have given my neighbor the best kind of help there is.

There’s just no replacing personal sanctity. And, as the poet Charles Péguy once wrote:

“Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.”

“Does God exist?”

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More depends on the answer to this question than any other. What a pity, then, that it remains so rarely discussed! I mean, of course, the reality of God, to which all Catholics must bear witness. Ours is a time which is in such desperate need of recovering intimacy with the God of Love. That makes it all the more sad to think that so often, when the topic is broached, it becomes an occasion for animosty and antagonism rather than for the truth of the Gospel to be depicted with clarity and charity.

The story of God and His Love needs telling. Hopefully, the following thoughts will help somehow in that.

“Does God exist?”
It can be easy, because the question continues to be debated generation after generation, with so many on either side and with so many different arguments and counter-arguments, to lay the question aside, or else to throw up our hands like Socrates at the end of a dialogue and say, “I guess we can’t know after all.” Perhaps it starts to look like a court case, and the “evidence” just doesn’t seem worthy of conviction. Perhaps the apparent futility of the whole back-and-forth leaves us thinking the question isn’t worth pursuing.

But this question is worth pursuing, like no other. Let’s take a step back here. The living God we proclaim is not a kind of superman, basically like us but a spiritual being of much greater power and intelligence. The question “Does God exist?” does not work the same way “Does Superman exist?” or “Does Zeus exist?” We work with some idea of Superman or Zeus– their essence, what makes Zeus Zeus and not, say, my neighbor’s dog. Then we try to figure out whether Zeus exists or not– he may or may not, and the difference is whether this one property, the property of existing, happens to be true of him or not.

When we ask the question “Does God exist?” it’s dangerous to imagine the answer comes the same way. “Existence” is not some one property we can ascribe to God in the same way we ascribe it to ourselves, or a dog, or a rock, any more than we can say that an author exists in the same way as his characters. The living God is Himself the fullness of Being, whereas our existence is merely participation in God, in the free gift He makes of His Being. It can be helpful, perhaps, to think of it along the same lines as the relation between light and window. A window has no inherent tendency of its own to illuminate or be illuminated, much the same way that we have no inherent tendency of our own, independent and self-contained, to come into or remain in existence. When the light shines on a window, however, the window is filled with light which passes on into the room. The window is illuminated, and the window, in a certain sense, illuminates the room, but the light itself suffers no diminution because the window “participates” in it. In much the same way, when we participate in God thanks to His loving act of creation, God suffers no diminution– or else we would not be talking about God, but some imperfect, imagined image of Him.

This brief consideration can serve as a first step in considering what thinking about the existence of God really entails. To purge our thinking about God of all that is unworthy of Him is a task as important as it is difficult– in fact a task impossible to succeed in altogether, as a consequence of the Fall, but that should not dissuade us from doing the best we can, realistically. God is not one specially powerful being among others but Being Himself, the non-contingent ground of all beings, the creative Reason that imparts His intelligibility upon all His creatures.
We can use this as a starting point, to prevent a kind of idolatry when thinking about God; that is, by ascribing something to Him that is altogether unworthy of Him or by neglecting to ascribe something to Him which must be true. On its own, however, this isn’t likely to produce a new conviction about God’s existence in someone. In future posts, we’ll take a closer look together at why recognizing God’s existence should be so difficult, what the proper attitude of assent to God’s existence consists in, and what some arguments for God’s existence look like.

Holy Family

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Last summer, I was struck by a bolt of inspiration–to draw a Holy Family where Joseph was not completely in shadow.  I felt like he deserved a little more credit.  Plus, I’d just gotten a set of Prismacolor pencils for Christmas but hadn’t had a chance to use them much and, like any child with a little-used toy, wanted to play with them.  The result is below.  (Disclaimer: the reason they do not have faces is because I am terrible at faces when I don’t have a reference.  Plus, I like it this way–simpler.  Smoother.  But still very obviously the Holy Family.)  Click for full size.

What’s with the veil?

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Ever asked that question, or heard it asked?  I’ve done both–as well as quite a bit of research on the topic in order to find the answer.  I’ll try to condense it here in bite-sized pieces and a Q&A format.

So, really.  What’s with the veil at Mass?

My standard short answer: because I am in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  Implication: God is truly present in the Eucharist and deserves every respect.  By veiling my head, I humble myself before Him, as is appropriate.


Doesn’t that make you feel inferior?  Men don’t cover their heads.  They take their hats off.  Why shouldn’t they cover their heads too?

Excellent question, albeit a little common.  It does not make me feel inferior–I’m simply fulfilling my role as a member of Christ’s Body, the Church: the Bride of Christ.  Men, while also part of the Church, are more like Christ by their very nature (that nifty little genetic thing called “XY”).  This does not mean that men are inherently any holier than women, or more faithful, or anything of the sort–simply that, by nature of being male, they are more like Christ.  Because Christ is the Head of the Church, men leave their heads bare.  Women, on the other hand, are representations of both Mary and the Church–the Holy of Holies.  This gives them a degree of sanctity which men do not have, since women–like Mary, the Mother of God–are female.  They are inherently mysterious creatures (ask any man and I can guarantee he will vouch for this–even if it is phrased as, “well, I don’t understand them, if that’s what you mean” because that is EXACTLY what I mean) and that which is  mysterious is hidden.  Hence why women hide themselves before their Almighty God: the veil is an external sign of an inherent and transcendent truth.  The veiling of a woman’s head is a profound representation of the unique femininity and sanctity which they possess.

But men and women are equal.

Equal–but different.  Now I don’t mean “separate but equal” (I know you’re thinking that, history-buffs.  I swear there should be a Godwin’s Law for slavery.) but, quite literally, “equal but different.”  I am completely equal to Quill in dignity (I have a soul, so does he; I was created by God in His own image, he was too) but absolutely different (think physical, chemical, genetic, spiritual, emotive, etc).  You cannot expect men and women to be exactly the same–they simply are not created for that.  (Plus, the world would be a much more boring place, if you think about it.)

If men are like Christ, and women are only like the Church, doesn’t that still make women lesser?  Christ is GOD.

Yes, and the Church is the Bride of Christ.  In matrimony, the spouses are equal in dignity.  Because Jesus IS God, and the Church is His Bride, and the components of the Church (all of us) were made in His Image, we share in His profound dignity.  I am not saying that the Church is equal to Christ –not remotely.  But Jesus condescended to us and became human, and all humans, as God’s creatures, made in His Image, are equal in dignity.  Therefore, the Church and Jesus are equal in dignity and this does not make women lesser.

So you don’t cover your head in the presence of men, and you don’t cover all your hair.  Right?

Right.  Those specific veiling requirements are both associated with Islam, not Catholicism.  Sadly, however, the practice of veiling is often solely associated with Islam and rarely (if never) comes to mind when referring to the post-conciliar period of Catholicism.  Some women opt for what my family affectionately refers to as “doilies”–small circular veils pinned atop the head.  I frequently wear a simple hat instead of a veil at many churches because veils are so infrequently seen that I do not wish to distract my fellow Mass-goers.

Where do I get one?

Catholic stores, online… some bloggers make them and sell them.  I’m hoping to create a list of Catholic artists and post them into a separate page on the site, so if you make veils or rosaries or artwork, send me a link and I will make sure you are represented!