Archive for February, 2009

Holy Men and Women in these Evil Times

Posted in Orthodox Christianity with tags , , , , on February 24, 2009 by blackincense

A dear friend sent me this link, and for one reason or another I kept putting off /procrastinating.  (I am a sinful, unworthy fool, and I am not sure why God, or my wonderful friends,  even bothers with me.)

But this morning, I finally went back to the email and this made me weep for joy.  Just knowing that such people really do exist in the world gives my heart great courage, strength and joy to face the days that are coming.


The Road to Gorgon

Posted in Arabian bakhour, bahkhoor, bakhoor, Christian incense, desert bakhoor incense, Desert culture, Incense, Orthodox Christianity, religion with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2009 by blackincense

Gorgon lies in northern Iran, forgotten by most people I know.  But I canot forget and I must never forget.  Gorgon for me, will always be a holy place.  I knew Haik Hovsepian.  I was very young but I knew him and his family.  On the road to Gorgon in 1964,  his first son was killed in an accident, along with three other children from the Bliss family. also good friends of ours.  This was before my time, and I came to know them much later, before the Shah fell, and before the true Persia was wiped off the maps forever.

Safi Abad, where I lived....not in this big palace silly!  Behind it, up on the mountain in a small house.

Safi Abad, where I lived....not in this big palace silly! Behind it, up on the mountain in a small house. Haik came to visit us and to minister to us as Christians...we had no one else.

But still, his wife Takoosh and Haik pursued Christ.  They became missionaries for a Protestant church inside Iran, at a time when Christ’s name was reviled among Iranians.  If you were to ask Haik and Takoosh, they would tell you that they were “Persian”, not Iranian.  The distinction is important although I doubt that many westerners know this.

For Takoosh, to be Persian meant to be a free woman.  For Haik, it meant to be free of the Savaak, the Iranian political police.  For both of them, to be Persian, meant to be Christian.  Haik was martyred for Christ in 1994.  He was stabbed to death in a forgotten alley in Tehran by Muslims faithful to Ayatollah Khomeini.   His death was a severre blow to my family.  I will always remember the courtyard of their home.

They lived in a poor suburb of Tehran, and yet, their house had the only penny wishing well within maybe 15,000 square miles.  Because only a Christian household would tolerate such a fanciful thing.  And they were the only Persian Christians who dared to speak Christ’s name within the same radius.  Haik gave me pennies of every kind to throw in his fountain:  American, British, and Canadian.  Haik saved his pennies from western nations so that he could give them to children of every colour, every ethnic background.  Our family carries his little tradition by keeping our coins from all over the world in our Persian alabaster bowl.  But we are too poor of spirit to build a wishing well.

Takoosh made baklava, from scratch.  Patiently, she laid each parchment thin sheet of handrolled pastry onto the baking pan.  I wanted to scream for instant satisfaction, but I said nothing.  As she spread the fresh almond marzipan onto the sheets, I thought I would die from Pavlov’s disease. Then she would go and ruin it by pouring boiled saffron onto my rice and say “Eat up.  No baklava until you eat the kabab.”  Tender, spiced lamb that falls off the stick.  Then she would take me shopping and tell me to go and see if I can find the rials stuck in the ice on the streets.  Every time I brought back rials, that were not really “found treasures” but more like stray bullets for the beggars, she would put it in a special jar for the poor.

In the Shah’s time, there were ice skating rinks, and roller skating rinks in Tehran, which meant for me, the only real reason to go there.  We would stay in an apartment, paid for by the Americans, and Ali, a “superintendent” of the building, would always have a gift for me.  He was a convert to Christianity from Islam, but nobody ever talked of this.  To do that was to invite disaster on him, but not because of the Savaak or the Shah.  Because of the Islamic extremests who were gaining power even in 1976.

That was the year we got a special invitation from the Shah’s wife to come and see the Crown Jewels on a private tour.  I got to hold the golden globe, made by the best jewelers in the souk.  It had sapphires for the oceans, and emeralds for land masses. Diamonds were for the polar caps and rubies were for anything south of the equator.  I held it in my hands.  Princessa Farahnaz, older than me by a few years,  took it from my hands and said, “You are a good friend to us. Would you like to see my Nancy Drew books?”  She wore a jasmine perfume I have never been able to create.  We played on a terrace overlooking Safi Abad and she wondered out loud if my hair was really “that” black, because I wasn’t Persian.  I wondered if her eyeliner was tattooed on.  Later in my life, I discovered that this was the very latest thing:  to tattoo your “eyeliner”.

“See?  See the flaw???”  Haik taught me to study the kilim, the traditional Persian carpets.  The best come from Nain or Bukhaara, and are made of silk. Each one is made from hand looms, and flaws are intentionally placed in the design. Because only Allah is perfect.  “See it????”  He would point to it, to make sure I saw what he saw.  “Yes I see it!”  I would jump up off my chair and haik would pat my head.  “Good girl.  You are a good girl.”  I still have the small silk Bukhaara bedside  carpet that he gave me for my very own, grownup girl room.  I used to sit on it and pretend to be flying across the world.  It still smells like almonds, baklava, and saffron to me.

Anyone who says that Christ cannot work outside of Orthodoxy never met Takoosh or Haik. And people who don’t say that, but who are just a bit too strong in their defensiveness against Protestants, have never been outside their comfortable, free, and indulgent western country.   And they also deny the whole of the Old Testament.

A  Cry From Iran

The road to Gorgon is lonely.  They say it is the loneliest place God ever built.  The scents of Gorgon rise up to meet my memory as saffron, mixed with dust and shoes that have been worn for too long and don’t quite fit rightly.  But it is the place that Christ will walk someday, to call up the bones of his tiny martyr, Haik’s son.  And then our Lord will walk all the way back to Tehran, and call up the bones of Haik, his beloved friend, and martyr for the Truth, a Person!  And our Lord will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Road to Gorgon.

Road to Gorgon.

Vashon Island – A Northern Oasis

Posted in Orthodox Christianity on February 11, 2009 by blackincense

I have always wanted to visit this monastery.  Now, in a small way, I can, by visiting Abbot Tryphon’s daily blog.

The Morning Offering

For those who don’t know, Abbot Tryphon is now known in Orthodoxy as the man who fought Starbucks and WON!

Glory to God he is now blogging and bringing the light of Christ into the darkness of my own heart.

(Be sure to check out February 7′ entry,  monastery photo of the day:  The monastery’s Norweigian cat, Hammie.  He’s on the Ladder of Ascent!!! 🙂

All Merciful Saviour Orthodox Monastery of Vashon Island

All Merciful Saviour Orthodox Monastery of Vashon Island

New Inspiration

Posted in Arabian bakhour, bakhoor, Christian incense, desert bakhoor incense, Desert culture, Ethiopia, Incense, Orthodox Christianity, perfume, religion with tags on February 9, 2009 by blackincense

I have been making cones for a week now, long into the night, every night.  They will be ready for soaking by next week when they are finally completely dry.

Many hopes and dreams were rolled into these new fragrances and cones, and I just wanted to share with you the inspiration for each of them.  I only pray that my hands and my nose are worthy.   My hands are very sore after making all these cones!  I can hardly type.  My arthritis is my reminder of how imperfect I am.

The following are how the labels for each will read, but they are the sayings of holy men that I have held captive in my heart for a long while now.  I hope these sayings will bless your life too.

Caspian Caravan

Isaiah 60:6

“The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the camels of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.”

“ The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he
who praises Christ amid the congregation of men.” St. Isaac the Syrian

Bedu Balm

Bedu means “one who lives in the desert”. The desert is not about geography. It is about the uncharted landscape in our own hearts, that keeps us from God.–BPI

“As a pilot calls on winds and a storm-tossed mariner looks
homeward, so the times call on you to win your way to God. As
God’s athlete, be sober; the stake is immortality and eternal
life.”  St. Ignatius the God-bearer

Cedars of Lebanon

Ps. 92″The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar in Lebanon” (Psalm 92:12).

“At the Last Judgment the righteous will be recognized only by
their humility and their considering themselves worthless, and not
by good deeds, even if they have done them. This is the true
attitude.”  Holy New Hieromartyr Barlaam

African Rivers:

“In Africa, I saw how true the Gospel of Christ is! Everything that He said about the possession of men by the demons, I saw first hand. However, the Living and True God is more powerful than Satan and all his servants. Let it be understood, however, that true missionary-apostolic work cannot be carried out in Africa if one does not decide to leave his bones there.”

Blessed Cosmas of Grigoriu

The Oasis....our Lord Jesus Christ, who is everywhere present and fills all things

The Oasis....our Lord Jesus Christ, who is everywhere present and fills all things

Bok bok….

Posted in Ethiopia, Orthodox Christianity, religion with tags , , on February 5, 2009 by blackincense

Delirium is what creeps up on me when I am at my healthiest, and that same fever always seems to burn hottest in the dark, when the night is at its most quiet moments, when even sleeping dogs would not wake if I stepped over them. The Bossa people of Liberia say that there is a time in the night, when no living creature stirs, because Jah is walking the Earth and when he steps over his creatures, they sleep deeper for the safety. I am very familiar with that time of night, and yet, Jah has never stepped over me. Instead, of hoping for that, I hope for the day when I will be able to rise up and walk with Him.

When I was a little girl, our night guard, who named himself John for the white man’s benefit, would sit in our yard, and wait for the serpent who sought the opportunity to slip underneath the door, or through the grill of the air conditioner, or perhaps through a window, left open by careless children such as myself.

The St. Paul river races through our back yard. You can never escape the sound of it, and its scent is something you can never forget. The scent is of a thousand years, as if they were of one piece, folded and put away in a drawer with all the hopes of the people it has washed away in the rainy seasons. Year after year. It is the largest river in the sub-Sahara, and the jungle clings to the banks. Only your backyard is cleared away. The river is so wide, that you have to really strain to see the huts of the leper colony on the other side. But at night, when we are waiting for Jah to step over us, we can hear the drums of a voo-doo doctor, and we shiver from things that are far beyond the cold of this world. Deep down, even though you are very young and very small, you somehow know that the white world you will someday live in, will have a hard time understanding that sound, that smell, that jungle.

John and I were companions by night, friends by nature, and separated by a thousand years of Irish inbreeding. Because John and I would never have moved in the same social circles. He was Bossa, a native Liberian and descended from free men who were sold into slavery by their brothers. A Joseph with a coat of many colors. I was the daughter of “the boss man”. But we were friends all the same, and if night damned us to melancholy, at least we were honest with one another. I asked him why he was black. He asked me why I was “n (click) ga”, a sound that is hard to make in English, but which means “day”. I was five years old and that gave me a lot of food for thought.

I can smell the scent of the scorpion, black and timid, as it rushes away through the carport, to get away from us. John catches it up, and holds it out to me. He shows me how to hold it. I can smell the poison in its tail as John shows me how dangerous it is. That scent is pungent, and it is metallic, but it is soothed away by the banana tree which has just come into bloom. Just there, to the right, in the yard. And against the house, a wild blackberry bush clutches the wall and the small white flowers on it, drip with perfumed dew.

We ate oatmeal together, because we both liked it, and it was all I knew how to make. He liked his with raisins. I liked mine with brown sugar and butter. His teeth were perfect. Mine were ruined before I was ten.

Now that I live in the very modern west, I have difficulty with a few scents.  One of them is “dead snake” versus “American skunk”.  They are so similar, I have to take it in for several minutes before I can really decide which one it is.  I also have a hard time with the smell of tonic water.  The scent of quinine is enough to make me gag on non-existent applesauce.  My mother had to crush up our quinine tablets in the applesauce.  It was that or die from malaria.  I hate applesauce and the scent of it makes me want to escape deep into the jungle.  And I’m never coming out.  Ever.  I will run away if you make me.

John could feel the presence of the serpent before it appeared. He could feel the movement of the snake as it writhed upward, seeking an entrance. His machete would fly through the air, and strike it’s target, slicing through the fluid air, as if on heavenly wings. He was my friend. We played games and he loved me like a daughter. He taught me the names of the animals, and now that I am so sophisticated, I have forgotten them all. But I remember his nearness, his voice, as he whispered songs to me, that told of the Creation of the world, in his own terms.

In his story, there is one god who subdues all the others, and casts them into the river. They are all washed away. When they are gone, then this god decides to create new living beings to live in his jungle. He mixes all things into a bowl and out of this bowl, he forms the first man and the first woman. And John says simply, that his god has a son, who is called NgJesi.

John was not a young man. He was in fact, very old, when I met him. But he ran faster than any child I ever knew. We were inseparable, and my mother gave up trying to put me to bed. As soon as quiet took over the house, I would be out in the night, with John, waiting for Jah, stealing fresh blackberries from the vine, and trying to discern the serpent from the ropes that held the boat fast to the banks, on the far side of the house.

Run.  If you can.  This is the fastest snake in the world.  And it will kill you.

Run. If you can. This is the fastest snake in the world. And it will kill you.

When he rid the neighborhood of a crocodile, my father asked him what he could do for him. His dearest wish was a transistor radio. Back in the sixties, a transistor radio was about the size of a Japanese car, with a price tag to match, and yet my father gave him one. It made John happy to hear voices, even though they spoke in languages he would never understand. It has always made my father happy to remember that.

My mother comes home from Abu-Jaddi’s, the market. John greets her in the drive, whips off the lid of the metal garbage can, thrusts it in her face and says, “Look Missy! LOOK!”

A gaboon viper writhes at the bottom of the bin, and my mother, with perfect grace says, “Oh John! How WONDERFUL for you!” He is so proud and he walks away with his treasure, knowing he can get a good price for the skin.   I can smell the venom from 50 feet away .  It’s deeper than any musk, heavier than any cloying floral, more resinous than any tree.

Gaboon Viper - A BIG one!

Gaboon Viper - A BIG one!

It is the scent of spiritual shame.  It crystalizes within the fangs of even dead snakes.  Venom is eternal and I can hear John speaking softly to me, “Never touch a dead snake.  Even one dead for 100 years.  The poison is forever.”

Sometimes, in the quiet, when my cat lies boneless on the bed, I think I can hear John, walking with Jah.

And then I hear, deep down, “Bok bok”….Our Lord is knocking at the door of my heart.  And sometimes He speaks Bossa.

The Bahkhoor Review ….The Sergius-Bob Reviews Part 2,

Posted in Arabian bakhour, bahkhoor, bakhoor, desert bakhoor incense, Desert culture, Incense, Orthodox Christianity, Perfume Reviews, religion with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2009 by blackincense

As I said in my last posting, my good friend and brother in Christ, “Sergius-Bob” (who is linked on my blog roll and all of you should visit him and read his stuff) sent me some beautiful bahkhoors that he had picked up on his travels.  He sent these to me, as a fellow incense lover, because he knew I would very much love to see them and try them.  What a glorious gift!!!!

True, desert bahkhoors, are the original scents of the desert:  amber, frankicense, myrrh, and oppoponax, blended with pure floral oils.  But in the middle east today, these scents have been forgotten, for the most part, by Islamic perfumers who have wanted to keep up with the west.  You have to search the bazaar very hard, to find true desert bahkhoor.

Now, to set you up for this, you should know that in Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt, the bahkhoor ceremony is a very deep gift of friendship.  Leaving aside all arguments about religion and theology, let us appreciate the deep reverence that Islamic people have for others they consider a true friend.

When I was a little girl, I lived in Behshahr, Iran.  This is the far north of Persia, in the mountains, about an hour from the Caspian Sea.  I wanted to go every weekend to the Caspian in hopes I would see the wild Caspian ponies because i loved horses.  In my mind, they were the same thing as the going to Isfahan, and seeing the horse races.  And if my parents took me to the horse races, I could go to the bazaar where I was sure to go into the gold souk which was filled with magical smells.

So for me, the smell of wild ponies is mixed with bahkhoor — there is no separating them in my mind.

My brother and I played in this ruin on the shore of the disclaimers were posted...

My brother and I played in this ruin on the shore of the disclaimers were posted...

When you approach the souk, you have to get through the crowds of people and the merchants crying out for a bargain on silk.  Then come the tailors and the smell of preserved cottons, and knits.  These are laid out on tables all in a row, piled high, and you cannot tell one color from another because you are dizzy from looking at them.  Moving through the fabric merchants, you come to the luxury sellers, (yes, there is order in chaos), and they sell all the goods for the home, and “jelly shoes” and net bags that smell like garlic, and noone bread.  Someone presses a piece of noon into your hand, and it’s still warm from the “oven” and has a layer of dirt on it.  Someone’s grandmother cooked it in her backyard where her son dug a hole, and lit a fire.  The fire is lit by cedar and pine pitch, flavoring the bread and maybe your eyes burn  a bit, but it’s a small thing to deal with.

A man in rags brings his horse and cart into the souk and starts selling bolts of fabric off the back.  You think it must be stolen but you don’t care, and mind your own business.  The horse is covered in stiff leather—it’s so stiff you think it might break from age.  This same horse, in the same old leather, will “compete” in the horse race later in the week.

Now you are suddenly recognized as a westerner and you are escorted (against your will) to the doorway that no one else is allowed to pass.  Outside this doorway is a leper, with open sores, and you want to die and shrink in his place.  But your escort throws coins at him and he is silent so you pass through the door into a world that is made entirely of gold.

Someone in white robes comes to you and begins swirling a smoking mubhkahr around you, above you and just below the hem of your dress (because you wouldn’t wear anything else in a Muslim country) and you feel a bit “high” not because of what the mubhkahr contains but because you are overwhelmed by this ritual.  And it is a ritual, because all the time this person is bowing before you with this mysterious smoking bowl, they are praying over you, to “Allah” to have a long life, and many children to comfort you, and all the good things that only “Allah” can bestow upon you.  It never occurs to you to tell them they are “wrong” and that Islam isn’t the real faith, because at that time, in that moment, it doesn’t matter- they are being very kind to you in the best way they know how.

John 12: Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said,”Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial.

Your mother walks confidently over to the counter and the jeweler bows very low because the depth of his bow is the depth of his respect for you.  You watch and listen as your mother describes to the jeweler what she wants and every time she finishes a sentence he bows deeply again.  You smell the horse and merchant in the street, and when someone sees your nose wrinkling from that experiment, they bring the mubhkhar over again to “cover” the scent.  You wish they wouldn’t, but it’s so pleasant and you allow yourself to get a little carried away on the scent that you know is a copy of a French perfume, but you would never say so.

Your mother settles the bargain on a clear topaz, the clearest that has ever been found by a human being, and it will be set in a 22 karat gold setting, swirled, to “cradle” the gem.  It is not an expensive bargain, and your mother is very pleased with herself.  She will have her “diamond” and only she and the jeweler will know the difference at a glance.  As you leave the souk, you are censed again, with the mubhkhar, and the jeweler b0ws so long his forehead touches the floor.

During the ride home, your mother decides to stop off at your maid’s house, to give her a paycheck and to drop off some food and other items.  You arrive at a mud covered house, about the size of a “studio apartment”.  12 people live there, all together with no bathroom.  Your mother is shocked at the conditions and later hires a contractor to build a proper 3 bedroom house.  But here and now, your nose is assaulted by the smell of human poverty and yet, they too, bring a mubhkahr filled with the same mysterious scent, copied from the grand house of Yves St. Laurent.  You recognize the scent.  It’s Rive Gauche and you know that because your mother wears it all the time.

Aldehydes, mettalic and heavy oakmoss, sprinkled with notes of rose geranium and jarring notes of amber.  An aluminum can spray, banded in black and blue, and Rive Gauche, Yves St. Laurent in long-hand script on the side.  The scent came out in 1970 so actually your mother is a bit behind in the fashionable department.

An old woman, older than you have ever imagined a person could be, comes shuffling to you with the mubhkhar and suddenly you are covered in smoke:  Rive Gauche.  Yves St. Laurent.  In the poorest home in all of Behshahr.Your chador (yes, you wear one.  When in Behshahr, do as the Behsharans do and do your best to be polite about it.)  is scented for days with the bahkhoor of Rive Gauche.  And you think that everyone lives this way.

And you begin to take the Islamic hospitality ritual for granted.  Until some dear friend sends you a gift of bahkhoor in the mail.  And then, you are transported back…back to being a little girl in Behshahr.  An hour from he Caspian.  An hour from freedom.

The bazaar in Tehran - 1975

The bazaar in Tehran - 1975