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The fragrance of God: finding God through the natural world

30 November, 1999

Through the practical interaction with his garden, Vigen Guroian finds God touching the significant transitions of our lives and how God is loving us in them.

128 pp. Darton Longman and Tood Ltd. To purhcase this book, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk



  1. The Fragrance of God
  2. The Ecological Garden
  3. Why We Garden
  4. On Leaving the Garden
  5. Beauty in the Garden
  6. The Temple Transparent
  7. Resurrection Garden

Sources cited



Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden,
let its fragrance be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.

Song of Songs 4:16, RSV

There is a beautiful Indian apologue, which says:
A man once said to a lump of clay,
“What art thou?”
The reply was, “I am a lump of clay,
but I was placed beside a rose
and caught its fragrance.”
Tr. William Morley Punshon, Our Prayers

For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. 2 Corinthians 2:15-16, NKJV

At the foot of the old-fashioned tongue-and-groove porch of my childhood home grew an apothecary rose that in May blushed red with flowers so fragrant its sweet breath made me dizzy. I recall trying to capture that fragrance in perfume I made for my mother, although I feel sure that the mess in the kitchen was more trouble to her than any pleasure she got from my concoctions.

While shuffling through rows of potted plants at a nursery one spring, I was suddenly seized by a yearning for something or someone that I could not name. Then I became conscious of a longforgotten fragrance. It was the same Rosa gallica officinalis that grew next to my parents’ front porch so many years past. It was hidden behind a sign that read “Old-fashioned Roses.” So I took it home and planted it at the end of a garden path in our backyard.

For five years I reveled in the fragrance of that rose. I would steal barefoot over the dew-laden lawn at daybreak, when the scent is strong, and lose myself in childhood memories. My son and daughter, teenagers at the time, made fun of their father, perched on the path with his head plunged in rose petals. I dared them to join me, just once – then let them wait thirty years and see if they didn’t repeat their father’s folly.

In August of 2001, my wife, June, and I moved from our home in Reisterstown, Maryland, and left the rosebush behind. We were building a new home in Virginia by the Blue Ridge Mountains. In October and November of that year, as the house was going up, I dug perennial plants into a gentle slope behind our new home. I saved a spot on the southeast corner for Rosa gallica officinalis.

Anyone who as a child has played in a garden could tell a similar tale. Indeed, it may be that all such stories about the gardens of our youth are the same tale of Paradise lost and longed for.

Of late, I have thought a lot about the gift of our senses that in youth run wild and that later in life we neglect or abuse. A blessing of our middle years may be that in slowing down, God gives us the chance – how shall I put it? – to return to our senses with new wonder, intensified by the passage of time.

Our culture is visually oriented, and becoming even more so with the advent of the home computer and the Internet. In the Christian religion, sight has frequently been proffered as a metaphor for the experience of God. The medieval theologians spoke of the “vision of God” as the summum bonum, the highest good of the Christian life. They singled out sight as the “mystical” sense, the one that draws us deepest into communion with God. Dare I contend with souls so wise? For I have a notion that smell, not sight, is the most mystical sense. The garden has persuaded me of this.

Though none of the other fragrances of my childhood ever surpassed the scent of that rose, there are other herbaceous odors that even to this day evoke strong memories and emotions. Some are sweet, like the common lilac and the lily of the valley. Others are aromatic, like the basil, or pungent, like the marigold. Not until my middle years, however, did I learn to appreciate the symbolic significance of smell.

Now, in my sixth decade of living, I seek out these garden fragrances, as they not only betoken the cycle of the seasons but also prophesy Eternal Spring. In May, I put down the top of my Jeep lest I miss the delicious scent of the honeysuckle that grows by the roadside; in June, the fragrance of the wild rose wafts across my path. In summer, the musty aroma of freshly mowed hay sweeps over me; in autumn, the earthy odor of decaying leaves wraps around me like heavy smoke.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, that magnificent Christian poet of the fourth century, summarized these sentiments in one of his Hymns on Paradise:

A vast censer
exhaling fragrance
impregnates the air
with its odoriferous smoke,
imparting to all who are near it
a whiff from which to benefit.
How much the more so
with Paradise the glorious:
even its fence assists us,
modifying somewhat
that curse upon the earth
by the scent of its aromas.
Hymns on Paradise, 11:13

*     *     *

The metaphor of the vision of God was always liable to the criticism that it misrepresents divine mystery by promising too much. But it is not so with smell. Much like the rose I sensed in the nursery, God is mysteriously present in our lives. Although I had forgotten the scent and the rose was out of view, its fragrance awakened me to its presence. We may not see God face to face, or tangibly experience him in other ways; nonetheless, he avails himself to us as he did to Adam and Eve in the Garden. He is like the rose – and, yes, even the cabbage and the tomato vine – that, though hidden behind garden walls, infuses the air with its odor.

Origen of Alexandria, a Christian writer of the third century, offers insight in his commentary on the great biblical love poem the Song of Songs. At the beginning of that poem the Bride exclaims,

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth;
for thy breasts are better than wine.
The fragrance of thine ointments is
better than all spices;
thy name is ointment poured forth; therefore do the young maidens love thee. They have drawn thee.
We will run after thee into the fragrance
of thine ointments.
Song of Songs, 1:2-4,  Septuagint version

Origen writes that the Bride – and her attendants – represent all who in and through Christ pursue purity and holiness for their lives. The Groom, he says, is Christ, the Anointed One of God. Origen associates the verses from the Song of Songs with St. Paul’s speech about the fragrance of God (2 Cor. 2:15). The fragrance of God that believers exude is like the smell of the incense burned at the triumphal procession of a victorious king and the odor of sacrificial rites.

But what makes the sense of smell mystical? you might ask. Think of it this way. Christian mystics speak of the hiddenness of God. And this God who is cloaked in mystery has disclosed his plan of salvation through the Incarnation. The Divine Word and Son of God wore our flesh so that with our senses we might know God better. But the Bible does not promise that God will reveal himself to us completely, or that even in Paradise we will see and know God in all who God is.

Origen also supposed that the Song of Songs prefigures the marriage of the Church to Christ. He does not say that smell is the most mystical sense. Yet he insists that it possesses a special capacity to evoke feelings of longing and yearning like the religious desire for God that the Song of Songs expresses:

When souls. . . have experienced the pleasantness of His [Christ’s] sweetness and odour, when they have received the fragrance of His ointments and have grasped at last the reason for His coming, the motives of the Redemption and Passion, and the love whereby He, the Immortal, went even to the death of the cross for the salvation of all men, then these maiden souls, attracted by all this as by the odours of a divine and ineffable perfume and being filled with vigour and complete alacrity, run after Him and hasten to the odour of His sweetness, not at a slow pace, nor with lagging steps, but swiftly and with all the speed they can.
Commentary on the Song of Songs, 1:4

*     *     *

Our age is materialistic, yet ironically it begets spiritualist teachings that describe the human body as a burden with no intrinsic value, as if our bodies have no relationship to who we really are. This body and self (or soul) dualism some pass off as true Christianity. Yet that is a lie. Christianity rejected this sort of dualism right from the start. That spirit is good and matter is evil, or that the one is eternal and the other merely temporal, was a common belief in antiquity. Christianity answered by affirming, instead, the resurrection of the body. It described the person as a body and soul unity.

We make a big mistake when we devalue the body and the senses. Our senses are important stepping-stones on the path to God and Paradise. When I kneel in my garden, the aromas of the plants may overwhelm me, yet I may not see any save those immediately in front of me. When I kneel in prayer, God’s presence permeates my entire being, though he remains invisible to my eyes.

It is true that, when all is said and done, we must transcend our fallen senses, including the sense of smell, for the higher spiritual senses of a life unaffected by sin. Yet with the proper discipline even our earthly senses may assist us in the journey to God. God has filled the whole of Creation with signs of his existence, signs that our senses can apprehend and that our minds can translate into knowledge of him. St. Bonaventure teaches this lesson in his great work of medieval spirituality, The Soul’s Journey to God, in which he writes:

Every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom. . . . From all this, one can gather that from the creation of the world the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made (Rom. 1:20). And so those who do not wish to heed these things and to know, bless, and love God in all of them are without excuse (Rom. 1:20); for they are unwilling to be transported out of darkness into the marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9) of God.
The Soul’s Journey to God, 2:12-13

The book of Genesis affirms our physicality when it says that God formed Adam from the earth (Gen.2:7). And the Gospel of John does likewise when it declares that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Jesus Christ, God has entered this material world and made body and blood sacramental signs of salvation. The Divine Word became a human being so that we might learn anew how to employ all of our senses to draw nearer to God. If Christ’s fragrance causes men and women to race toward him, Origen writes, “what, do you think, will they do when the Word of God takes possession of their hearing, their sight, their touch, and their taste as well?” (Commentary, 1:4).

With infective joy, St. Ephrem expresses his appreciation for the gift of the senses and their redemptive role in our lives:

Let us see those things that He does for us every day!
How many tastes for the mouth! How many beauties for the eye!
How many melodies for the ear! How many scents for the nostrils!
Who is sufficient in comparison to the goodness of these little things?

Who is able to make thousands of remunerations in a day?
Even if there dwell in him a great spring of words,
he will be unable by words and melodies to make
the great remuneration of every hour,
O Gracious Cheated One, Who, although cheated daily,
does not cease to do good.
Hymns on Virginity, 31:16-17

I do not know of another Father or Mother of the Church who has called Christ by this extraordinary appellation: “O Gracious Cheated One.” Yet, how true it is! Ephrem’s appellation is personal, not merely because Ephrem, like us all, is a sinner. Ephrem, as the hymnist, is confessing that he “is unable by words and melodies” to express the depth of his gratitude or to repay God for the blessings he receives through the senses.

We “cheat” Christ in so many ways, and most certainly through the neglect and misuse of our senses.
A first-century Christian hymn asks us to think of our five senses as strings on which God plays and speaks to us:

As the wind glides tbrough the harp
And the strings speak,
So the Spirit of the Lord speaks through my members
And I speak through his love.
Odes of Solomon, Ode 3

God has created human nature with the capacity to resonate with the pulse of the divine Life. But sin has damaged this ability. It has put not only our senses “out of tune” but also the whole in disrepair. That is why we are unable to experience God in the garden with the same intimacy, harmony and intensity of Adam and Eve before the Fall. That is what makes gardening such a bittersweet activity.

*     *     *

Another ancient writer of the fifth and sixth century, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, takes up
Paul’s passage about the fragrance of God. He emphasizes that we need to discipline our senses:

If there is a pleasure to be had from a sensual fragrance, if it provides great pleasure for that sense in us which distinguishes between odors, this happens on condition that the sense is actually healthy and is actually capable of taking in that fragrance which comes its way.

One may speak analogously about our intellectual powers. Provided no impulse toward evil comes to corrupt them, provided they keep alive the natural dynamism of our capacity for discernment, then while God works on our behalf and while we respond to his grace by a return to the divine, these powers can draw in the fragrance of the Deity and be filled with a sacred happiness and with God’s nourishment.

Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, 4:4

God wants us to hear his footsteps in the garden, to feel his embrace and kisses among the lilies, to feed on him at the Tree of Life, and to breathe in his life with the fragrance of the rose, as did Adam and Eve. God wants us to inherit eternal life. But these things can come about only if we reorient our senses, tune our human instrument, so that we are able to respond to the grace that permeates ordinary life.

Christians are the “real” realists. The Son of God, by his Incarnation, has demonstrated that the world is filled with symbols of God. These symbols that God has planted in the world testify not only to his existence but also to the goodness of his Creation. By the example of his own life, Christ teaches us that through our senses we may commence our spiritual journey, and that he will receive us into Paradise in the full integrity of our humanity, body and soul united, and together in communion with him. St. Ephrem says,

That blessed abode is in no way deficient,
for that place is complete and perfected in every way,
and the soul cannot enter alone,
for in such a state it is in everything deficient –
in sensation and consciousness;
but on the day of Resurrection
the body, with all its senses, will enter in as well,
once it has been made perfect. . . .
When Adam was in all things complete,
then the Lord took him and placed him in Paradise.
The soul could not enter there of itself and for itself,
but together they entered, body and soul,
pure and perfect to that perfect place –
and together they left it, once they had become sullied.
From all this we should learn
that at the Resurrection they will enter again together.
Hymns on Paradise, 8:7, 9

*     *     *

The Christmas decorations have gone up in the stores and shopping malls. They mock the One who cast the merchants and moneychangers from the temple. Christmas is rightly a sensuous season, for it celebrates the human birth of the Maker and Savior of this world. I am free to savor the rich sensuality of Christmas with all its familiar smells of fruits and herbs and spices. But Jesus calls the temple his body and tells me that I must cleanse my own so that I am fit to enter Paradise. He calls upon me to stand vigilant in the midst of the moneychangers and the merchants who put the Wise Men’s gifts on sale and turn the stable into a store. I will not let them distract me from the “one thing [that] is needful” (Luke 10:42, KJV).

Advent has begun. In its ancient significance, Advent is a time of fasting and preparation for Christ’s coming – and for his coming again. Yet God invites me to inhale the scent of the Rose, she who gave her flesh to be the body of my Savior, the Temple of Eternal Life.

Lord, in this season of expectation
help me to distinguish Mary’s
sweet fragrance
and yours
from all the false fragrances
that waft my way.
And when spring arrives,
I promise that I will plant a rose
in my garden,
like the one that grew
by the porch of my parents’ home,
and I will breathe in its sensuous smell
on the breeze that blows in
from blessed Paradise.

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