Archive for desert fathers

With God, All Things Are Possible

Posted in Arabian bakhour, bahkhoor, bakhoor, desert bakhoor incense, Desert culture, Incense, Orthodox Christianity, perfume with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2009 by blackincense

The challenge I face in creating these new bakhoors is not the “how”, as I know the mechanics and the chemistry very well.  It’s capturing the mystery of the reverence the early Christians had for their faith, for our Lord, for the Saints and for each other through scent.  The challenge of re-creating a lost time is something that most perfumers are not willing to do, because it’s just a lot easier to give people what they want and what they want is usually the result of modern marketing.

With this new project, I am breaking away from everything that people have associated with my art up to now, and I run the very serious risk of rejection.  That would spell the end of BPI as a “business” but I never really saw it as a money-making endeavor anyway.  I want to get back to being an artist, and less of a merchant.  If that means “loss of business”, I guess that’s what that means and I can live with that, as long as what I am doing brings honor to our Lord.

Plans for Perfume Elixirs:

I’m going to drop one perfume and make a new one.  “Antigua” will no longer be available after January 30 so I will put the last 2 bottles on sale and that will be that.  It’s not a scent I want to keep, simply because it doesn’t fit with my current interests, and the others just over-shadow it anyway.  “Antigua” was a fun scent that I created for little girls at faire, and for secular women who wanted a Caribbean perfume.   It doesn’t have anywhere near the sophistication (either in simple smell, or in chemical composition) to the other three.  Madagascar has always been my best seller, and the main reason for this is:  it’s a “dark”, heavy perfume, loaded with the richness of Oriental spice, and overlaid with florals.  There are 27 distinct “notes”  in Madagascar alone.

“Silk Road” and “Mykonos” will soon be joined by ” Cyprus” and I am renaming “Madagascar” into “Saida”.  Madagascar will remain largely the same except for an infusion of carnation and a couple other notes I think will make it a more powerful, “signature”  fragrance as my personal trademark.  That will round out my Byzantine perfume series and maybe this summer I will start on the Arabian elixirs.

The Bahkhoors

As for the bahkhoors I am planning, I have been working on four formulas and have been inspired by four particular desert monastics.  These four bahkhoors, will be named after a particular desert father or mother.  The four I have chosen to focus on are:

Abba Moses the Ethiopian

Abba Antony of Egypt

Amma Sarah

Amma Theodora

Too often, the desert mothers get pushed aside, especially in intellectual conversations; they are hardly ever mentioned.  I do not want anyone to think that I am on some sort of “feminist kick” but I think this is really insulting to these brilliant and lovely women, and I think their feelings must be a little hurt that we ignore them so much.  So I am going to pay attention to them if no one else will, and maybe if people try the bahkhoors I make for them and like them, this will inspire them to read more about them.

This series of incense is an intense study in experimenting with native flavors and aromatics (al-Khindi would at least be impressed that I’m trying, if I am not always successfull. <laugh!>).  I have not stretched my nose this far before and although I am not unhappy about it, I still feel I may be missing something and that I haven’t gotten it quite perfect yet.

But I want to preserve the sayings that I have been reading, while I work.  I have them printed out and taped above my work table, so that I can read a sentence or two, and then keep working on the formula.  It helps to keep me focused on what I am trying to achieve.  With these two women, these desert mothers, I am trying to create the scent of the white (no doubt silk) robes our Lord has given them in Heaven.  Naturally, this is really impossible, because we don’t know what scents there are in Heaven…and of course, everything I do, think and am, stinks in comparison…but still, my work is mainly about if it were possible, what would it smell like?  And Our Lord says that with Him, all things are possible!

Here’s some of the sayings from these extraordinary women, and after reading them, maybe you will see where I am going with this.

Amma Theodora

She also said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, ‘What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ They replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’

Amma Theodora also said, ‘There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, “I will go away from here.” As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, “Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.”

The same Amma was asked about the conversations one hears; ‘If one is habitually listening to secular speech, how can one yet live for God alone, as you suggest?’ She said, ‘Just as when you are sitting at table and there are many courses, you take some but without pleasure, so when secular conversations come your way, have your heart turned towards God, and thanks to this disposition, you will hear them without pleasure, and they will not do you any harm.’

Amma Sarah

Once the same spirit of fornication attacked her more insistently, reminding her of the vanities of the world. But she gave herself up to the fear of God and to asceticism and went up onto her little terrace to pray. Then the spirit of fornication appeared corporally to her and said, ‘Sarah, you have overcome me.’ But she said, ‘It is not I who have overcome you, but my master, Christ.’

It was said concerning her that for sixty years she lived beside a river and never lifted her eyes to look at it.

Another time, two old men, great anchorites, came to the district of Pelusia to visit her. When they arrived one said to the other, ‘Let us humiliate this old woman.’ So they said to her, ‘Be careful not to become conceited thinking to yourself: “Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman.” ‘But Amma Sarah said to them, ‘According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.’

Amma Sarah said, ‘If I prayed God that all men should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart may be pure towards all.’

She also said, ‘I put out my foot to ascend the ladder, and I place death before my eyes before going up it.’

She also said, ‘It is good to give alms for men’s sake. Even if it is only done to please men, through it one can begin to seek to please God.’

Some monks of Scetis came one day to visit Amma Sarah. She offered them a small basket of fruit. They left the good fruit and ate the bad. So she said to them, ‘You are true monks of Scetis.’

She also said to the brothers, ‘It is I who am a man, you who are women.’

This Coptic nun was photographed in 1936.  She lived to be 115 years old and was martyred for Christ in 1976.

This Coptic nun was photographed in 1936. She lived to be 115 years old and was martyred for Christ in 1976.


On Returning to the Desert

Posted in Arabian bakhour, bahkhoor, bakhoor, desert bakhoor incense, Desert culture, Ethiopia, Incense, Orthodox Christianity, Perfume Reviews, religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2009 by blackincense

About two months ago, I returned to the desert after being away in what seemed like exile.  Some might think that I was really “living it up” on the modern and beautiful California coast, but the truth is, I was never “at home” or with my own people.  I was always an outsider, and in many cases, an outcast.  I lived and moved among people who did not have my best interest in mind, and in some cases actively sought my destruction.

Since returning to this high mountain desert, where things are pretty well spelled out for you (live or die) I have been stretched, like a shirt that is too small over a growing frame.  Now, more than ever, I look out at the expanse of the mountains and the desert floor and I imagine the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  This morning, I walked out to a secluded spot, and lit my incense.  It was raw frankincense and myrrh in basic,  plain bowl.

I inhaled and tried to pray in that way that is personal and so filled with hurt that you don’t want anyone to hear,  that speaks to God directly about our self-inflicted wounds and our sins.  After awhile, I opened my eyes and I tried to imagine going back in time and visiting a real Desert Father or Mother.  I tried to imagine what their lives were like, and what their daily routine was.  I thought about how they might view my personal situation and how practical their writings seem to be, and so I pulled out my copy and read a bit of their sayings.  They were so deeply practical and they did not waste a lot of time on philosophy or pointless arguing.  They LIVED their lives!  They embraced their humanity and spent their lives in self-examination.  Such devotion to the Christian ideal (Be ye perfect, as I am perfect!) is exhausting and yet these monks and nuns, the desert dwellers, they found the strength to not only accomplish it, but in many cases, lived looooong lives in spite of the hardships they faced.

I can feel the artist side of me wanting to burst out and create new things.  The artist in me wants to experiment with fragrances in ways I have not done before, simply because I was afraid to attempt them.  At the same time, these things are not really new.  They are very ancient.  I want to leave Athonite style incense to the monks of Mt. Athos and go back to the deserts of Egypt and make bakhoors and find rare resins to work with, to make desert style ,  worshipful scents.    I want to sink my feet in the sands of Ethiopia and find the fragrances of the earliest monks and nuns.

I’m not talking about “biblical perfume” nonsense.  I am talking about creating that desert inside my own soul and walking a desert path within it toward the summit of Sinai.  I had started feeling this way about a month ago, and I spoke to my priest who smiled and said, “Well, it’s about time!  I’ve been waiting for this….”  Funny, how he seems to know what I will do before I do it. (laugh!)

The truth is, for a long time, I have simply copied the monks of Mt. Athos and the nuns of Greece and Cyprus.  I am not them.  I can make their product, and it’s so similar only they would know the difference.  But it is not “Athonite” any more than “Cooks” is “champagne”.  True Champagne only comes from that lovely valley in France.  So too, Athonite incense only comes from the Holy Mountain, straight from the hands of the monks who make it.

My “Athonite” incense is very good, and I do my best praying over it.  But they are not the prayers of the monks or nuns.  They are simply the prayers of good will, by your friend, Columbina.  So when it comes down to it, I want to follow that path in the desert that St. Moses and Abba Dorotheus, and Abba Poemen, and Abba Athony, and Amma Syncletia set for us “normal people”.  The desert is attainable.  The Holy Mountain is too high for me and I don’t belong there.  I can never go there, and breathe it’s fragrance.  But I am from the desert and I know it intimately, literally.  I can put that intimacy into a new set of fragrances that speak to other wounded souls.  Maybe by doing that, I can find healing for my own.

So, although some customers may leave and go somewhere else, that is allright…I leave their path to God and turn aside to set my face toward the desert of the Danakil where I can hear a monk off in the distance sing,

Ba-weho! (Glory!)  Ba-weho a Xristos! (Glory to Christ!)

I have no idea how to explain this to my customers.  I hope they will still write to me and let me know how they are, what makes their souls sing!  Some of them really are not going to understand but I will be working on importing true monk’s incense from a monastery in Mt. Athos.    Maybe that would make them happy.

Ba-weho! (Glory!)  Ba-weho a Xristos! (Glory to Christ!)

Sundown in the Danakil desert of Ethiopia 1977

Sundown in the Danakil desert of Ethiopia 1977

Catch the Fire….

Posted in Orthodox Clergy and Information, religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2008 by blackincense

I spend a lot time with the desert fathers and mothers, because I see so much in them that I want to be, to acheive, to harness.  I try very hard not to pretend to myself or others, that anything I say either in person, or on the internet, could possibly have any merit on its own.  I am very much aware that in fact, nothing I say has any merit on its own.  I am not a brilliant theologian or even a student of theology and so most of what I say probably has no meaning for anyone but myself anyway.

Having recently been reminded of how disposable I am, through loss of employment, I have found my spirit restless and troubled by thoughts of inferiority, self-abasement, and shame. So it was with a troubled spirit, that  I turned to the Desert Fathers once again, this morning.  This is what I read:

“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man, Abba Joseph,  stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you like, you can become all aflame.’ ”

I am reminded, that this life is not about employment, production of wealth, goods, or personal acclaim.  It’s not about attracting for oneself, the honors that go with a brilliant education or patting yourself on the back for being from the “school of hard knocks.”

My aim in this life, must be above all else, to become “all aflame”.  There is no other purpose in living, but to unite with God and to become a person with no enemies.  And as in all things, this too is given as a gift of choice.  Abba Joseph did not say “You must…” .  He said, “If you like…”

The God we worship is truly the author of grace.

An Ethiopian Monk rests outside his cell.

An Ethiopian Monk rests outside his cell.