Archive for Orthodox Christianity

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.

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Re-write: A Mouse For All Seasons

Posted in Orthodox Christianity, religion with tags , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2008 by blackincense
Due to recent events, and multiple projects, I haven’t been able to write in awhile.  But Christmas is almost here, and so I was asked to write an article for my parish newsletter.  Below is a new version of an old post I made, in light of the Star of Christmas.  I hope you enjoy it.
Frankincense and Myrrh: 
Fit for a Mouse, Fit for a King
By Columbina, owner of Black Powder Incense (www.blackincense.com)
 
The original news story appeared in the Kansas City Star back in September.  Apparently, some scientists with too much time on their hands have discovered that mice love frankincense.  In their study, mice showed significant decreased anxiety and a general tendency toward uplifted spirits.  I am certainly not an expert on the emotional range or psychological states of mice, but I can tell you that none of this is news to anyone, except scientists.  Frankincense has always been a precious gift to humanity from God.  Its anti-septic qualities as well as its effect on human emotions and human pain, has been well documented throughout history.
 
It has often been speculated that the Magi brought frankincense and myrrh to Christ in order to purify the area.  He was, after all, born in a stable and one can only imagine the germ population that surrounded both Child and Mother.  Naturally, this would not have affected Him, and by extension, His Mother, but of course, the Magi could not have known that at the time. 
 
The frankincense that was offered to our Lord, was most likely, but cannot be proven to be the “black frankincense” that comes only from Ethiopia, also known as the “cradle of humanity”.
 
Our modern noses have been trained by Glade™, Re-nuzit ™ and Elizabeth Taylor ™.  Clove studded oranges and cinnamon rolls smell fantastic but such “Christmas” scents are simply the result of successful marketing campaigns.  They do not represent the “smell of Christmas” any more than Martha Stewart does. 
 
This Nativity let us enter in to the world of the Magi, and the mystery of a true Christmas scent.  When we burn frankincense and myrrh on Nativity Night, we can experience the fragrance of the purified Stable and Manger where our Lord was born.  Let our hearts, where He is to be born every year, be purified as well.
 
I have donated some packets of Ethiopian frankincense and myrrh to our parish bookstore, The Forerunner.  All monies from these sales will benefit Forerunner Books.  Please support your parish bookstore and in doing so, enter in to the Stable of Bethlehem, where even a mouse can answer a Heavenly call to Hope. 
The Christmas Mice by Wendell Minor

The Christmas Mice by Wendell Minor

More Biblical Perfume Nonsense

Posted in Orthodox Christianity, religion with tags , , , , on October 26, 2008 by blackincense

“Lillian” (not her real name)  has written to inform me that I am “so wrong and decieved” about my last blog on Biblical scent.  She wants me to know that “God is calling His people out of Babylon and is calling them to create Biblical perfumes as of old…”

Really?  “As of old…”   hmmmm….I am not often stirred to irritation but this sort of thing really irks me.  The wording of this letter is pretentious at best, condescending at middle, and blasphemous at worst.  I can’t really understand how God would think that making Biblical oils in these last days, would accomplish much.  Not when there are little things like REPENTENCE, feeding the hungry, REPENTENCE, serving the poor, REPENTENCE, giving out glasses of water, visiting the sick that are so pressing! I think I forgot to mention repentence.

“Lillian” goes on to direct me to this website where we are assured by an unnamed merchant (who is making a hefty profit on the Biblical oils he/she/they are selling on the site) that God is indeed angry at the world and is demanding (rather like a four year old who hasn’t gotten his imperial way) that his followers begin dowsing themselves with “Biblical scents and fragrances” and spend their time (and lots of money of course) recreating them.  This is nothing short of nonsense and blasphemy.  I quote now from that website which will not be named here, but if you want the link, write to me and ask:

….”This page will be updated as the Holy Spirit leads.  First of all, we would like to say this journey to discover all that the Lord wants to reveal to His people about the Holy Incense has been intense. Some of the ingredients used are very difficult to obtain and it has only been by God’s grace, mercy, and timing we have located them. …”

Oh puhleeze!  “Difficult to obtain..”??? What ??? You have to be kidding…Most people have coriander in their kitchen spice rack, and while saffron is pretty expensive, you can get just about anything you want from any herbalist shop.  Obviously, though, I am a sinner, and this person has somehow been “privileged” by God to obtain these things.

The Lord’s time to release the Holy Incense and other biblical incenses is very important.   God has been waiting for the Church to mature. The Holy Incense represents the fragrance, fire and power of the Lord and is sacred…..

“How To Make The Holy Incense

Although we can not give you the specific recipe or formula the Lord has given us to make the Holy Incense, the Lord has promoted us to encourage each believer to seek the Lord in prayer for guidance and direction.

We do offer all the ingredients you will need to make the Holy Incense.  Please keep in mind that the correct interpretation of the scripture is very important when making the Holy Incense.”

(Excuse me while I go to the loo to puke.)

Well, I am a Christian, and this is, basically, CRAP. Shame on these people for taking advantage of the gullible.As if all the above were not enough, the author of this website, the merchant who is selling all this stuff or exorbitant (and really out of range) prices, goes on to tell us that:

…”Anointing oils can be used as a symbolic representation of our faith in Jesus Christ to answer our prayers through divine intervention; consecration, sanctification, applied as a healing salve or ointment that has true medicinal attributes, used as a perfume for hygiene purposes, funeral or embalming practices, or preparing weapons for warfare. Anointing oil and ointments have multiple applications as you will see in the scripture references below.”

This is nothing else other than one thing:  witchcraft disguised as Christianity and it angers me that anybody who calls themselves  Christian would even suggest such a thing.

The annointing oils and incense used in the Orthodox Church bear no resemblance whatsoever to practices such as these, and moreover, the practices of the Church with regard to incense, our use of annointing oil, chrism, or anything “smelly good” we use in the Church would NEVER be thrown around in this sort of manner.  We do not throw holy water on things because it acheives something we “want” or because it’s effect is in any way”magical”.  The line here is not “fine —-it’s as wide as the Jordan River.

In Orthodox Christianity, which is the only completely historical Christian Church dating to the time of the Apostles, annointing oil is a tool of the Sacraments of Chrismation and Holy Unction.  These are to be administered by priests, and the oil itself is blended by Bishops themselves or by monastics. (As far as I am aware.)  No perfumer such as myself has the clerical authority to create such a blend, according to the Canons of the Church, and throw it around on people, places and things for some sort of magical purpose, especially if it is couched in Protestant language of the 21st century.

It is true that we can be given or buy other types of oils from Orthodox sources (monasteries, parishes, etc.) in order to annoint ourselves for prayerful purposes that always speak of repentance, but for no other reason!  I have a bottle of oil from the vigil lamp that hangs over the relics of St. John the Wonderworker, which was given to me (with a blessing!) by Fr. Nikolai at the Cathedral there.

Secondly, Holy Incense, is prayerfully made, and is used by everyone, and anyone and while our method of making incense is not generally publicized to the non-Orthodox, it is not exactly a “secret” in the Orthodox world.  Any Orthodox layperson will be taught to make it if he/she asks and receives a blessing from their priest to learn it.  Christian incense, is an art that has been perfected by monastics out of necessity, not from the canon law.  It has always been the job of monks/nuns simply because most laypeople do not have the time or the energy to make it.  (Physically, it can be demanding and “humbling” work.)   So monks and nuns have become traditionally associated with the art, because they did the job no one else wanted to do.  Not because it was the province or privilege of “a few” who have been “led by the Holy Spirit”….Certainly it is holy and the work they do is “led by the Holy Spirit”, but we do not say that laypeople who make  it are not, or imply that somehow we are the only ones holy enough to understand it.

Dear “Lillian” –

I am very sorry you have been led to believe these things about Biblical scents and fragrances.  These ideas are promoted by someone who has an agenda:  namely to sell more Bibilical scents and fragrances.  Such people are many in the world.  I hope you will prayerfully re-consider your position and that you will visit an Orthodox Church in your area, to ask a priest about the proper Christian attitudes and beliefs about these things.

I will pray for you.

God bless you and keep you in Christ,

Suzanne

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

On the Bitterness of Having What You Don’t Want.

Posted in Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Clergy and Information with tags , , , , , , on October 21, 2008 by blackincense

A long time ago, I had a conversation with a friend that I have never, ever forgotten.  Her name is delightfully, “Penny”.  Penny is rich, gloriously rich with money of her own, a fabulous home, a Mustang convertible, and a fleet of other cars.  She might as well have them all named for the days of the week. ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’, ‘Wednesday’…I love going to visit her because her house is like a museum: every thing in it has a history, a story behind it, and I love to hear her talk.  She talks a great deal, Penny does, about nothing, and yet about EVERYTHING that was ever important to humankind.  She is brilliant, and yet she doesn’t realize that she is so.  She’s intelligent, but she thinks she’s a “dumb blonde”.  She’s worldy, but she has this ‘otherworldy’ air about her, that speaks to the very heart of a person.  She is so fabulously rich, yet she makes chocolate chip cookies every afternoon, for her evening dessert.  She does it, she says, because she wishes to be “young again”, and to remember always the innocence of her youth.

And yet Penny is one of the most humble, simple hearted, most dedicated Christians I know.  She is not Orthodox, but is firmly “Church of Ireland” and whenever she talks,  the Gospel shines through.

On that long ago Sunday, we were sitting in her “garden”, an actual “botanical” garden if you know what I mean, complete with bronze statues, strategically placed benches, and sculptured hedges.  Even the bushes are trimmed into pieces of fine art.  Who knew that Michaelangelo’s “David” would end up re-done in a rhododendron?  Penny’s garden gives new meaning to the phrase “going green”.

Penny lives in Ireland.  Not just anywhere in Ireland, but in a real castle that is dated to the 13 th century.  She opens her home to visitors, because “times are difficult” and “all this is just window dressing, don’t you know?”

So there we were, in our formal dresses (because Penny enjoys “dressing for tea”) and having our tea and biscuits in the garden, a veritable paradise, and Penny was saying quite conversationally, as if people everywhere had such lofty and deep thoughts:

“…well, you know, then I thought myself:  If I had a nice husband, then I would really be happy...but then  I got a nice husband, but as time went on he wasn’t as nice to me as I got older,  and then I thought to myself, ‘well, okay, if i had perfect children, then i would really be happy.  But I wasn’t, even though I did have wonderful children.  They really are a comfort you know, when you think you haven’t done anything worthwhile, you can look at them, and say “well, it wasn’t all so bad!”

And so then I thought, ‘Well, if i just had a nice house, you know then i would really be happy...”

But that didn’t work out so well, because then I had to clean the thing, you know…so then i thought, ‘Well, if i only had a good maid, and a staff of servants, then i would really be happy...”

So then, I decided to hire all these people and now I never get a moment’s peace, and now I think, “Well, if I could just get rid of all this stuff, then I would really be happy!”

Wisdom!  Let us attend!

How well, I understand, now, after all this time, what she was trying to tell me.  But it only really just hit me today.  And so I post it here, so that I don’t forget it.

Penny gave her life to others.  She eventually sold all her possessions and gave it all to the poor, as our Lord commanded.  She is “judged” by many to be an “eccentric”.  But to me, she was the Irish version of a fool-for-Christ.  She lived well; she gave even more.  She enjoyed life; she made sure others less fortunate were able to enjoy it too.  When the economy went into “over drive” in Ireland and everyone was busy making money, she opened her “home” to orphans and to abused women.  She created an entire “shelter” for those same abused women on her estate, who later spit on her grave.  All for the love of Christ.

Dear and glorious Penny…you are a true sister and guardian.  No one else wanted to tell me the truth about myself, all those years ago, but you found a way to explain it.  Although I did not understand until today, I give thanks to you for what you said so faithfully.  I give thanks that I had the privilege of knowing you.

Memory Eternal.

Lismore "house".  Penny's home...my home whenever I want to "run" there.

Penny's home...my own "home" whenever I had the courage to run there. Truly, it was fortress fortified from "within".