Sights, Sounds, and Smells Matter in Worship

Sights, Sounds, and Smells Matter in Worship

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One of the many tragedies experienced by our contemporary churches is the loss of the sacred. Although there are innumerable expressions of this loss, one of the most potent examples can be heard upon entering many of our churches. Silence is no longer honored. Silence is no longer “golden.” Instead, and unfortunately, cacophonous chatter fills the Sanctuary. Rarely, if ever, do people appreciate this architectural emphasis: The Narthex (the outer room before entering the Sanctuary) is for speech and the Sanctuary, until worship officially begins, is for silence. This refusal to honor silence compromises the experience of the sacred.

But this is not the only way that the sacred is sacrificed or compromised. When I was a child, I was awed by the sights, sounds and smells of my local church. Each of these contributed to the experience of the Holy, to the sense of God’s perpetual presence. In the church where I was raised, and this without exception, sights, sounds and smells simultaneously “spoke” of God’s presence, power, permanence and pertinence. Each of these capably and consistently communicated the glory of God.


God has given us eyes to see. What our eyes focus upon is what our hearts desire. As such, as we seek to encourage the sacred in and among us; it is important that we appreciate the need for visual stimulation in spiritual formation. When I was a child, two books filled my heart with wonder. Both visually stimulated a hunger and a thirst for God within me. The first book, My Imitation of Christ, is a visual vocalization of Thomas ‘a Kempis’ classic literary work, Imitation of Christ. This Confraternity of the Precious Blood edition, with its simple black-and-white prints, set my imagination aflame. It remains my constant companion. The second book, My Path to Heaven, by Geoffrey Bliss and Caryll Houselander, is a lavishly illustrated Ignatian Retreat for young people. Although I was only six or seven years of age when my mother gave me this book, and although I was a highly active child, this text dominated my attention for hours. While I may not have been able to read the words, the images captivated my mind. With this very young knight, Houselander’s illustrated diminutive hero, I too wanted to ascend the heights of Christian perfection. I too wanted to be a knight for Christ!

But these literary references are not intended to highlight my literary preferences but, rather, to emphasize artistic liturgical priorities. Arts–religious, sacred and iconographic–filled my home, school and parish church. Images set flame to my imagination, occupied my mind and inclined my heart toward God. Images, properly depicted, can have the same impact on all of us. When we enter the Sanctuary and engage in worship, when we pick up the Bible, the hymn book, the Missal or our prayer book and actively participate in the “work of the people,” which is true worship, the words and the images are potentially sanctifying. (Letters and words are, of course, literary images.) When enlivened engagement occurs, through the proper use of words and images, we are by God’s grace made holy. As I have said in my book, Beholding His Glory: Transfiguration and Human Transformation, “what we behold is what we become.”


God has given us ears to hear. Saint Andrew’s Abbey, a Benedictine community in southern California, profiles a single bell just outside the monastery Chapel. Housed between two tall red pillars, referencing the community’s oriental origin, the bell tolls the hours of importance. Of utmost importance, as found in the Rule of Saint Benedict, is “the Work of God” also known as the Divine Offices. The influence sound has had upon liturgy cannot be overestimated. It is almost impossible to imagine a time or a place when sound has not dynamically impacted spirituality. I do not think that such a time or a place exists, and this for both good and ill! Music has molded the lives of millions of Christians. It continues to do so. Unfortunately, at least in some ways, the sanctifying impact of sacred sound has been seriously compromised. Although I was never inclined toward “church music,” far preferring a well-spoken liturgy to a badly-sung liturgy, I learned the importance of proper sound the hard way. When I was a child, there was a large and beautiful pipe-organ on the back balcony of our local church. Frankly, I never gave it much attention until one day, the organ was almost entirely silenced. Instead, at the front of the church, there was a “worship team” strumming guitars, beating tambourines and singing (rather badly) folksy tunes almost entirely devoid of spiritual depth. It was, even to my young and untrained ear, a howling catastrophe! Fifty years later, although with very clear hope on the auricular horizon due in part to Ratzinger Revival, we are still hearing the tired sounds of a bygone era that should have long-since been exhausted. Many congregations are stuck in the sound (and thus the spirituality) of the 1960’s through the 1970’s or, even more alarming, are clamoring to hear Post-Modern and Post-Christian loud-sounds that assault both the ear and the soul.

We need more than just continuity (the old) or creativity (the new). We need more than “Traditional,” “Contemporary” or “Blended.” We need more than institution or innovation. What we need is a renewal of the ancient past in our current context in order to ensure a fruitful and faithful future. We need theologically informed liturgical sounds and structures that embrace a Catholicity that is simultaneously ancient and future. Silence must be kept. Image must be informed. Sound must be liturgically edifying. The bell of Saint Andrew’s consistently awakens the “enclosure” (as well as the surrounding countryside) to the duties of our days. It says “now is the time” and “now is the place” and “this is the priority.” When music fails to quicken and catechize, when it sacrifices revelation on the altar of relevance, its purpose is lost and its persuasive power is limited.


God has given us a host of sensory perceptions. Recently a friend of mine gave me some prayer beads. His generosity was a gift in at least two ways. First, and foremost, it reminded me of his care and concern. Well-chosen and well-given gifts are encouraging. Secondly, and also of importance, the beads smelled just like the church in which I was raised. As soon as my friend told me to “smell the beads” I was transported back to my church and my childhood. To walk into Saint Mary’s Church was to smell holiness. It “reeked” of the perfumed presence of God. Every word spoken and every action taken at my parish church had the aroma of sanctity. As my friend and I parted he said that the beads “[would] never lose their smell.”

I have never lost my appreciation for spiritual “smell.” When raised within such an environment, especially when accompanied by godly living, it remains with you for life. This said, sights and sounds and smells and actions, especially within a sacramental setting, are intended to fully and functionally and fundamentally communicate God. God is here. God is with us. God is among us. God cares. God, through Jesus Christ, saves and sanctifies and will (by his mercy) glorify. We gather together, as Dr. Robert E. Webber has written, to celebrate the “saving acts of God in history.” When sights, sounds, smells and actions are properly oriented, the Church is encouraged and evangelism occurs. When they are not properly oriented, both the Church and the world suffer. Let us, by God’s grace and mercy, seek to fully participate in the well-ordered worship God intends…on earth as it is in heaven.

Image attribution: Oliver Huitson / Thinkstock


2 Responses

  1. I enjoyed your article. We in the Orthodox Christian Church are fortunate to have all of these sights sounds and smells in worship and they are very enriching. The one we need to work on a bit more is “silence” when we enter the sanctuary. While it is not a complete problem, it’s easy to greet a friend or to offer a comment about a recent event.

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