Archive for Christianity

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.

The Scent of Remembrance

Posted in Arabian bakhour, bahkhoor, bakhoor, desert bakhoor incense, Ethiopia, Incense, Orthodox Christianity, perfume, religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2009 by blackincense

I thought I put a complete explanation on my webpage, and also here, on my “about” page, but I still get letters asking for more detail about how I ended up doing this as a business .  I don’t want to bore the rest of you, so you might want to go read all about the latest political scandal and my feelings won’t be hurt.  That stuff is  far more entertaining anyway.

But for those that really want to know how I ended up an incense maker and perfumer here’s how it really was.  My father worked for “That Agency That Dare Not Speak Its Name” and so I grew up abroad.  I was raised in the normal way — I cried, I pouted and my parents spanked me regularly.  But I do not have “normal” memories of my childhood.  Rather, it was filled with smells and I identified from an early age, the scents of my surroundings and my life in general.  For example, most children will tell you that they remember the smell of their mother’s perfume.  This is true for me also, but what I remember was:

Shalimar, by Guerlain

Emeraude (the classic original) by Coty

Dior by well, Dior.

But these fragrances are mixed in my mind, with the smell of roast beef, cookies, and fresh bread.  If anyone were to actually admit in public, that they remember their mother smelled of Shalimar mixed with Rugelach cookies, I’m certain that Guerlain (or Kranzler himself) would boil over in anger.

Anyway, I remember my childhood in the context of smell:

Mamba moving through fresh mowed grass

Jasmine covering swamp crocodile

Benzine cleaner wiping out rose damascus.

Noone bread (spelling in English) mixed with saffron, supporting a wild musk deer

Saffron covering cheap jasmine perfume

Cheap jasmine perfume floating on pieces of Iranian paper

Iranian paper mixed with glass halal vitamin vials.  (even the glass containing them smelled of curry.)

Mix all that together, and you have one confused little girl who doesn’t know if she’s supposed to be American and speak English, or an African Iranian who speaks Farsi and Romanian.

As a teen, I was typically rebellious and went off to study “art” in Paris.  I came home because the Gendarmes “recommended” that I was too naive to live there.  But I spent my summer in an attic there, and that made me an exotic rebel among my friends.  While I lived there, I went to Fragonard and spent two months working for them as a lab tester.  I worked among the people who create the fragrances that you know as Dior, Yves St. Laurent, and others.  Mostly I worked for dead guys whose legal heirs created really bad outfits for women.

After that, I went on “the road” and became a ne’er do well who had all sorts of jobs and two hobbies: scent and new age religion.  As a “new ager”, I learned to blend my own oils into liquid incense, and from there, became an herbalist incense maker.

Fast forward 20 years:  Since that time, I have been married a few times (outside the Orthodox Church) and I am now single, probably for the rest of what is considered my natural life, whatever that might be.  Several years ago, I went on pilgrimage to Romania, and learned to make the incense that our Holy Church is known for.  I will never forget the time I spent in the skete there, learning to blend ingredients in huge black pots.

I’m sure the nun in charge will never forget me either, since I knocked over her only remaining bottle of carnation absolute (valued at about $2000 per half pound, AT THAT TIME.)    Her name was Theophania and she waved her hands over the spilled carnation, and said, “Nia!”  (Peasant for “never mind”.)  She proceeded to show me how to make a copy of carnation absolute, using two very cheap and inexpensive ingredients.  When I was done, my “carnation” cost about 20 cents a pound.    Even my nose couldn’t tell the difference.  I will never stop praying for Theophania.

BPI, as a business, is actually fairly young.  I began making Orthodox incense and Byzantine perfume in about 1995, but did not start selling it until much later.  When I started, I was actually forced to do it because at the time, I was homeless.  BPI started here:

The original "home" of BPI...

The original "home" of BPI...

I must never forget the smell of desperation, loneliness, and complete surrender to God.  If I had to describe it, I would say that it smelled like cedar, broken in half, covered with pure cocounut and olive oils.  Maybe someday, I will make an incense from that, just so that I don’t forget.

God bless you for reading my blog.  You are always in my prayers.

On What It Smelled Like in 0 AD

Posted in Orthodox Christianity, religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2008 by blackincense

I am getting those letters .  The ones that ask for a “Christmas” incense and a “Biblical perfume”.  I know exactly what they want, these lovely people, and that’s exactly the problem.     I don’t want to say anything sarcastic or hurtful, but I also want (and try hard)  to educate them. What they want is something that really, we can’t have.  Not because I can’t manage to make a “Christmas” incense (complete with pumpkin pie smell) , but because Christmas incense already exists and I really can’t improve it much.  “Christmas incense” properly is plain, untreated, frankincense and myrrh, straight from the fields. God made the first “Christmas incense” and I really can’t come up with any better ideas. I’m not sure why people think I should try, although I do make a seasonal incense that ought to satisfy the “Christmas craving”.

But never mind that, we’re talking about God’s incense here:

Matthew 2: 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

It is generally thought that the frankincense and myrrh was probably from Ethiopia, although the Magi themselves were probably from Syria.  The “Silk Road” trading was active at that time, although it wasn’t called that then, and Ethiopian resins were considered the finest in the world.  (They still are –Omani frankincense is over-rated and very expensive.)  It is also speculated that one of the wise men might have come from Ethiopia.  It’s hard to say.  One thing we can be sure of:  the gifts of the Magi are listed separately, and therefore, they were untreated, unprocessed resins.  They were “pure”.  The account in Matthew does not say, “…and they offered him incense made from…”  It just says that they gave him these resins and it tells us what they were.

In thinking about what these raw resins actually smell like when they are burned, it’s hard to guess people’s reactions.  Some people love it.  Others don’t care for it, and prefer a more “cultivated” or “sophisticated” scent.  In other words, some people love “natural” smells and others love “sweet”. First of all, our sense (scents!) of smell (grin) is completely different in these modern times, that it would have been in 0 AD when our Lord was born.

Back then, the world smelled a lot different than it does today.  Our ideas about what smells “good” at Christmas, is largely about the success of commercial marketing.  I can almost guarantee that “pumpkin spice” would probably have smelled like rotten eggs to a 1st century Christian.  Their noses were trained in an entirely different world and were subject to an entirely different set of sensory perceptions. When Mary poured oil on Jesus’ feet, it was spikenard, which smells approximately like old leather.  Call it the “Old Spice” of the New Testament.

Don’t get me wrong:  I grew up on horses and I love the smell of leather.  Saddles that have just been cleaned, smell GREAT to me.  But this is not what most women who write to me want.  They are under the impression that the oil Mary used, was probably some kind of floral scent.  Christian women are under a lot of misunderstanding about “Biblical perfume”.  I cannot make a 1st century version of Giorgio or Red Door.  It doesn’t exist.

Here’s a concrete example of what I am talking about.  I actually possess the following oils in uncut form: Spikenard ,  Cassia,  Myrrh,  aloe

I don’t have mollusk shell (onycta) , ground up and powdered but I can get it, and  I do have styrax and the other stuff that Exodus calls for.

Here’s what it actually says in Exodus 30: For anointing oil (what we might consider a perfume): Moreover the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 “Also take for yourself quality spices—five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels), two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane, 24 five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 And you shall make from these a holy anointing oil, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer. It shall be a holy anointing oil.

Quality spices in those days, in the lands of the Bible,  were things like mustard, balm of gilead, and saffron.  Steam distillation wasn’t invented in those days, so they would grind these up in a bowl, and soak them in oil.  The pure grains of these herbs would scent the oil, and it was more like a “paste” than anything else.  It was semi-solid, and not what you think of when you think of a “perfume”.

For incense in the Temple: “Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. 35 You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. 36 And you shall beat some of it very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. 37 But as for the incense which you shall make, you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its composition. It shall be to you holy for the LORD. 38 Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people.”

Now, for the purists out there, trust me, I can make this.  But my name isn’t Moses or Aaron, and I don’t have a “tabernacle” to put it in. Christ came to free us from ourselves, from death.  He came to free us from the “letter of the law” and He came that we might have “life and have it abundantly”.  We are free in Christ, to enjoy scent and to enjoy our lives now.  We do not live in the chains of the past, (even the beautiful past of the Old Testament).  The Kingdom is here and now.  We are called to higher things, than our past, even if it is our collective past as human beings.  On an individual level, each person is called by God to “taste and see”.

Whenever I get these letters I often wonder if it’s really the perfume they want, or if they are just expressing a desire for something “ancient” in their lives.  People are ever searching for meaning and our world is spiritual battleground.  People want things they cannot have, namely the desire to “go back” and “get it right”.  We cannot go back, we can only make amends and move forward.  The whim of possessing a “Biblical perfume” is really about the desire for holiness.  People want to respond to God’s call, and finding it difficult within, they look for an external way to achieve holiness, as if it were a garment you could just pick up at the dry cleaners.

This is what the purpose of the Jesus prayer really is:  to purify us from within.  The incense and the perfumes is all external.  It’s beautiful and it’s helpful in prayer, but it is not our prayer itself.  That only comes from the heart. And that’s why I don’t make “biblical perfume”  —- you wouldn’t like it anyway.

Instead, I’m working on a new batch for Christmas — I decided I wouldn’t make the blend I usually do, at this time of year.  I’m going to make a brand new one.  From scratch.  Because I know I cannot go back.  I can only start over, every day. I haven’t named it yet, but I am using the frankincense and myrrh as a base, of course.  But there wont’ be any pumpkin pie, or cinnamon, or cassia. No cloves sticking out of an orange.  I’m going to do something new.  Something REVOLUTIONARY for Christmas.  It probably won’t even smell like “Christmas” to anyone except me.   But it will be special and I will try to keep some back for the rest of the year, so that Christ will continue to be born in my heart, all year long.

Wanna know what it is?????

Huh???

Really?

Sure?

Frankincense and myrrh.  Blended together.  Nothing else.

Icon of the Adoration of the Magi

Icon of the Adoration of the Magi

“Hold Fast to the Truth You Have Been Given…”

Posted in Orthodox Clergy and Information, religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2008 by blackincense

In Renaissance times, it was not unusual for sailors, and especially pirates,  to have that exact phrase, “Hold Fast” tattooed on their hands.  Surprise!  I have no idea what the word(s) for it in the “original Greek” are, (don’t you love people who can say that and know what they are talking about?  I really do admire such people!)  Never mind asking me what it is in Russian or Serbian.  But here it is in olde Englysh:  (smile!)

Hebrews 10:

23Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)

What does it mean to “hold fast”?  In plain, every day English  I think it is safe to say that it means, to “batten down the hatches”, “lash down everything that’s not nailed down”, to secure ourselves and our loved ones, firmly in the Church, by hand-cuffing ourselves to the icon stands if necessary, when times of trouble arise.  (Don’t think I won’t do it! )

Those times have come for me. They have finally come.  I won’t bore anyone with the petty details but suffice to say:  My faith is weak, imperfect and thoroughly objectionable on it’s own.  If I died tonight (“Now I lay me down to sleep…”)  I doubt I would be able to sputter an answer to the Lord’s questioning.  My “faith” such as it is, would never survive His scrutiny.

And so I pray, “O, Lord, HELP MY UNBELIEF!”

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!

Without him, there is no hope of escaping death.  There is no hope of escaping my condemnation of myself.  There is no hope of escaping my accuser who is far more powerful, and far more intelligent, than I am.  (He probably speaks in the “original Greek.”)

But how exactly do we “hold fast”?  When we come to baptism, no one gives you a manual (except for the elegantly wrapped Orthodox Study Bible which we are told, we cannot understand without an interpreter, which is why we are getting baptized in the first place.)  No one ever really “teaches” anyone how to “hold fast” and no one can really learn it from a book.  It is done by doing.  Even when we don’t feel like it.  When we don’t think we have it in us.  When we think “All is lost!” and we turn to our prayer books, frantically searching for the “right” prayer.

In the end, the final analysis, I can never hope to make it to heaven, if Orthodoxy is all about the cannons of the Church laws, and the sayings of St. So-And-So who has never been translated into English, but is only available in the “original Greek”.

Thank you Lord, for your mercy!  Thank you Lord, for your salvation!  We, the unwashed, hold fast to your Promise!

O, Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!  Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom!!!

Here are three crosses.  Which one is yours?  Which one is mine?  I don’t know.

He will have to choose for me.

The Saints and Politics

Posted in Orthodox Clergy and Information with tags , , , , on September 2, 2008 by blackincense

Right now, everyone is talking about people I have never heard of.  Apparently someone’s daughter is pregnant outside of marriage, and there is someone else who may or may not, have had an affair before he married his second wife,  and then there is another person who went to Israel, and stuck a prayer on a piece of paper in the Wailing Wall, and someone stole it and published it in the newspaper.  I sometimes feel left out, because I can’t discourse on these matters intelligently.

I note that none of the Saints ever discussed politics unless it was to say, “Come out of her my people!”  I was reading a passage in the Revelations of John, and I was immediately struck by how often politics is mentioned.  Here, God is judging kings, and leaders, and over there He is striking down the systems that oppress. I don’t pretend to understand all the subtleties of it, and I cannot even begin to formulate an opinion on who the “Beast” is.  I only know who he is NOT: the maker of my soul, and the only lover of mankind.

There is certainly room for political opinion, in the life of an Orthodox Christian.  (I remember that wonderful Cyber Monk, Fr. Sava in Serbia) But we are not to be obsessed with the things of this world.  None of the Saints who left the world behind, wrote treatises on the glories of politics, politicians and politicking.  More often, these Saints were victims of the same, and persecuted by them.  But we never read of them condemning those who persecuted them.  They are simply not mentioned at all.

Their silence on this matter is deafening.  Maybe I am not missing anything after all.

I must strive to be like this Tigray woman, and bend to the task that has been given to me, leaving the things of this world to God.

I must strive to be like this Tigray woman, and bend to the task that has been given to me, leaving the things of this world to God.