Tuesday, in the way of the Beguine Again community, is set aside to let prayer waft through our lives. However, I have been quite remiss in posting or talking about it. This goes back to roots in my health journey last year and in the resignation of our previous prayer leader. Filling her shoes while going on my journey was inconceivable to me at the time. But now I am here.
One of my favorite evening prayer psalms / musical pieces is a setting to Psalm 141. The phrase that catches my imagination is "Let your prayers rise up like incense before you." Below you will find a YouTube version from Kent Gustavson.
When I was in seminary, I wrote a paper comparing the altar of the Israelites to the communion table of the Christians. When I was studying the elements of altars and such, I studied incense. The Israelites talk about having an altar of incense. But what is the theological element behind incense? The nearest I discovered was the idea that the smoke of the incense would:
- disguise the imperfection of our prayers and offerings
- offer a cleansing opportunity (although they had a cleansing pool for that outside the Temple)
- and, that it reminded people to pray
Christians kept the practice of incense by utilizing a thurible.
Some Jewish and Christian communities have continued using incense and others have left it behind.
I, personally, love the mystery of the smoke and the smell of the incense. There are so many intersections possible. Caution: I'm entering into territory that I am not expert at. Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians--they all use incense, I believe.
My earliest memories of community are formed around campgrounds and smoke and fire. Not so much "Church" but church in a different way. Adults and children gathering to listen and be with one another away from the hustle and bustle...cooking marshmallows on sticks we foraged in the woods...being amazed at particular shows of flame...being at one with the night sky.
Eventually, there would always be a quieting. Where the children start drifting asleep or drifting back to their tents or where the smoke dancing through the sky whispers to their soul in an almost hypnotic dance lulling them into contemplation. The chatter of the adults dims as they too begin to sense the luminous. The decision to leave the fire, let it die down or to intentionally put it out, is always a challenge. Is it time? How can we move away from this moment of oneness?
Practical considerations come to the fore and a decision is made to put one last log on the fire. Eventually, this leads to a dousing of any possible flame with its onslaught of smoke and ash rising up. Because, once we decide to put the fire out, it is not done gently. It is done in a rush of water pouring heavily onto the fire causing an uproar of steam, ash, and smoke.
Maybe this is a necessary ritual. A closing of sacred space in a rush of smoke.
Today, I am lucky to experience Peacemaking Circles and the burning of sage. The burning of sage seems to bring the same peacefulness and centering that incense rising up or my childhood campfire brings.
It is all connected. There are cross-cultural experiences of smoke and cleansing and our connections to the earth, one another, and the divine. I am sure there is some part of our evolutionary process that creates an advantage to smoke and incense. There is even a mutation in our genes that allows our bodies to process smoke and neutralize its harmful effects. (See NY Times article here and original study here). Smoke is part of our genetic structure! OK. Well, maybe not. But we are conformed to the presence of smoke.
All this is to say, for today's prayer practice, burn some incense or sage (or toast some marshmallows). See if you can do these things mindfully. Pay attention to the smoke or incense rising up. Play some soft music if you like. Focus on the smells, the taste, the sounds. Find the liminal space between the now and the not yet. Let your life rise up like incense, lifting your hands to the compassion found in Universal Love.
Rev. Terri Stewart
Peace and love to you!