A few weeks ago, as part of my study of American religiosity, I visited the Shaker Village in Hancock, just across the boarder between Upstate and Massachusetts. The true Shakers had been gone for generations, but local enthusiasts and sympathizers keep the memory of this interesting American protestant commune alive. Now it is a living museum with a small working farm and ongoing practice of traditional shaker crafts.
The first building which I entered was a wood workshop. I stepped in and the smell of that place arouse in me a strikingly vivid memory of my grandfather’s woodshed. It must have been some specific combination of drying and aging woods. It was as if I was suddenly transported across thousands of miles and a number of decades in time to the time when my grandfather taught me how to split wood.
That is the magic of our human olfactory memory. I think I can speak for almost everyone when I say that we all have had such flashbacks triggered by a smell of freshly cut grass, pealed apple or some other fruit, or just a gust of a salty air. Almost any specific smell can suddenly and surprisingly bring forward vivid memories to us. And unless we are professional taste tasters, we would have a hard time putting into words those special smells. Similarly we might have difficulties actively recalling memorable smells. We need to wait until our memory is triggered and then we are surprised with vivid, almost palpable memories which go far beyond just smell.
Olfactory memories are clearly more direct, vivid and elemental than words, sounds or sights. Come this Sunday as we continue our search for post-cartesian spirituality – integrating, uniting and rejoining body and spirit, our physical and spiritual selves. We will rejoice in the often overlooked, forgotten or neglected fragrant and tangible spirituality at the center of our faith.