What Does Grace (“free, unmerited favor,” not the person!) Smell Like?

Last week I was fortunate to participate in a conference organized by Writing for Your Life. Barbara Brown Taylor talked to us during two keynote sessions. If you know her work, you can appreciate what a gift that was. If you don’t know Barbara Brown Taylor’s work, get your hands on Learning to Walk in the Dark, or Leaving Church, or An Altar in the World today.

During one session this author-artist poked us to reimagine our religious vocabulary. I had never considered that my faith-based language is abstract. There isn’t any flesh on mercy. Sin may be black, but what color is redemption? Joy may rain down on the joyous, but that rain doesn’t soak through clothes and drip from eyebrows.

I use the words grace, mercy, peace, joy, reconciliation, and forgiveness the same way I use electricity here in my house in the US (in contrast with electricity usage in Beni). I don’t wonder about it. The electricity just is. I am not mindful when I flip a switch. I know what will happen. The light will turn on. I use the church language the same way.

During her talk, Barbara Brown Taylor teased us to think about how some of our religion words smell and taste and feel.

So the last few days I’ve been thinking about grace. What does grace smell like? Feel like? Taste like? I think grace smells like…

  • A just-curried horse in a stall of fresh hay. It’s warm, sweet, and savory.
  • Fresh lavender. Pungent but gentle, inviting me to breathe and settle.
  • An old-growth forest in mid-summer, with its thick, peat moss cologne. I smell shades of green and brown, leaf and bark.
  • A cold and heavy snowfall in the mountains. It’s so cold that there is no smell. The air is crystal. Lacking fragrance, it possesses essence. The wild cold chafes exposed nose and cheeks. My nostrils cling together on an inhale. I know nothing else for that moment.

And for you? What does grace smell like?

Ash Wednesday

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. I’ll join with other parishioners for Holy Eucharist with the Imposition of Ashes. The priest will smudge the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads and remind us, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

We will pray the Litany of Penitence.

We will admit out loud, to God, “to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in Heaven and on earth” our offenses.

We will remind ourselves that we have broken hearts and fractured relationships by what we have “done and left undone.” We will remind ourselves that we have harbored thoughts, spoken words, and taken action for our own self-interest.

We will ask forgiveness for…

…our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives. …

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people, …

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves, …

Our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, …

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us, …

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us, …

BCP, “Litany of Penitence,” pp. 267-268.

The sins are many.

Our faults are too many to bear on our own. The weight crushes us. So we will say the words together and shore each other up as we acknowledge our guilt and claim our hope.

We will be a gathering of the trying-to-be-faithful on a day that marks the path to grace.

Yes, we fail. We sin. We hurt each other. We even do unspeakable things. But God, in Her and His boundless mercy, loves us and pours out grace and mercy upon us.

Thanks be to God.

The sign of the cross
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