All Souls Kansas City

“Conspiracy of Smells and Bells” February 4, 2018, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

We celebrate sharing of water, sharing of fire, and sharing of earth, but what of the fourth element, air? As the pagan cross-quarter holiday of Imbolc – Christianized as Candlemas, and secularized as Groundhog’s Day – approaches, what might we learn from the air-borne rituals of incense and sound experienced in a variety of traditions? We will experiment with our own new Bell Choir and other liturgical sounds, as well as several types of scent, including Native American smudging. If incense or candle scents bother you significantly, this might be a time to check out live streaming online.


Click here to start at the sermon.

There is a communion that happens every day;
More than sharing a morsel of bread, a candle flame, or a flower blossom,
We give and receive the breath of the air around us.
No being can live without this mingled sustenance,
That flows through our lungs to every cell in our bodies.
No one has private air; it is the essence of a common good.
Today we celebrate that invisible, intangible element
in which we live and move and have our being.


It was at this time of year, with the winter solstice well past,
But spring not yet on the horizon;
With the days beginning to lengthen visibly, but the cold still entrenched,
That earth-centered traditions celebrated Imbolc,
the festival of pregnant sheep, early lambing, and new milk.
Charms and spells of protection against evil spirits, including wolves and predators,
Were invoked, to guard the new born lambs and other vulnerable creatures.
Because it was during the winter months that there was time to make candles,
And the weather was conducive to a heat-intense process,
This time also became associated with the blessing of the year’s supply of new candles
For use in both homes and Christian churches.
It also became the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary,
Celebrating the time when the baby Jesus was brought to the Temple,
And his mother was ritually released from the period of isolation following birth.
In the weather-sensitive northern climates, people searched for signs
About the length of the remaining winter, watching the behavior of birds and other creatures,
Which connects to our secular Groundhog Day.
In agricultural communities, it was a time of cleaning, repairing and blessing tools,
And planning and preparing for the planting season to come.
In the household, this was echoed by spring cleaning, decluttering,
and creating space for new things.


Imbolc suggests that emptiness is not just a negative, but has a blessing all its own,
Like the air we breathe; the power of possibility.
Air is not just emptiness — it carries both sound, and scent;
Two primitive senses that our human mechanism has traded by evolutionary bargain
For binocular vision, opposable thumbs, and greater brain processing power.
Today, I invite you to pause, to take a deep breath, to empty your cluttered mind,
And recall the ritual power of smells, and sounds, that summon spirit —
The wind that bloweth where it will,
that carries our aspirations into the shared breathing of community.
This morning we will be working with the ways in which many religious traditions
Have made sound and scent part of their practice of worship.
We will share some ideas and thoughts, to be sure,
But we will also be asked to give our attention to what comes to us through the air;
To the way that vibration resonates in our bodies, and aromas fill a wordless consciousness.
We begin with the Native American tradition of smudging,
To purify a place and a time with the smoke of sage,
Calling our focus to this moment, here, now, and what we are doing together.


In that same spirit, we kindle once again the light of this chalice,
A beacon in whose light we gather,
sharing the air of this place made holy by our presence together.
May its flame illuminate the ideals that summon us,
And reflect our vision of a world of harmony and justice, beauty and peace.


Part One: Purification/Centering

I suspect that my cats feel sorry for me. Most animals do – my brother’s beagles most of all, probably. After all, with a measly 5 million scent receptors, I am pretty much nose-blind compared to the beagles, with 225 million receptors, or even the cats, with some 80 million. Smell is almost a vestigial sense for human beings, while for many animals it is their most perceptive way of knowing the world. We have no idea how much information we are missing by relying so much on our eyes, and so little on our noses.


Nevertheless, for most of human history, the world has been a much stinkier place than it is in contemporary American culture. While philosophers and intellectuals have routinely dismissed the olfactory sense as irrational, and unworthy of cultivation or study, ordinary people in western culture were bombarded with smells that we moderns go to great effort to avoid. During eras when bathing was considered at best an occasional recreation, and at worst dangerously unhealthy, living bodies carried far more odor than is now acceptable. Dead bodies of animals were ubiquitous, and often enough human corpses also contributed to the atmosphere. Arrangements for the disposal of human and animal waste were very informal. The custom of carrying flowers, or a spicy cloth, arose to counter the many unpleasant smells that were everywhere, particularly in populous cities, and even in church.


At the same time, smell is perhaps the most powerfully evocative of all the senses. It connects directly to instinctive disgust, to emotional connection and attraction, and to memory. A distinctive odor is more likely to take us instantly back to a past experience than anything that we can see or hear, or even try to remember.


Given these realities, it should not be surprising that over the ages religious ritual would have used the power of smell to invoke spiritual experience. Because supernatural beings, both good and evil, are often thought to be invisibly present in the air, processes involving scent, especially smoke, have been intended to either summon, or repel, their attention. And because smoke rises into the air, it can be used to honor or communicate with deities that are located above the realm of the earth. When a particular scent becomes associated in the human mind with a powerful experience, whether of awe and wonder, or terror and dread, it can bring us again to those feelings suddenly, and with great precision. Thus if one has learned to associate the smell of burning sage with a sense of purification, so that evil intentions and spirits are driven away, and the whole mind and heart is focused on gratitude, and wisdom, and blessing, that smell will bring you to that state of mind again easily. It is more that the odor is pungent and distinctive than that it is especially pleasant; indeed, it appears that what is considered a beautiful smell may be somewhat culturally conditioned.


Evil spirits aside, aromas do have the power to distract us from almost anything else, and fill our attention with fear, or curiosity, or longing. This is why they are useful for centering and focus, if we are trying to clear away the mental debris of everyday life, and drive away disrupting thoughts.


The same air that carries scent molecules to our debilitated human nostrils also brings the vibration of sound to our ears. Here again you and I are to be pitied by our animal companions, whose hearing is 4-5 times more sensitive than ours. We are designed to pick up the ranges of human speech with great precision, but are less receptive to lower and higher frequency environmental noise. While smells evoke intuitive emotional responses in us, sound triggers our innate search for patterns that create meaning – in short, language. But sounds also operate in our bodies at a pre-conscious level, soothing or arousing us, depending on our neural response and our conditioning. Many religious traditions use the vibrations of bells, chimes, and drums to set aside the intellectual engagement of the verbal, and help the practitioner return to an inner awareness that is not mediated by words.


Today I am honored to have been entrusted with the quartz crystal singing bowl that was given to Rev. Rose Schwab by the congregation of our neighbor Shawnee Mission UU church at her installation as their minister. Bowl bells are associated with Buddhist, Taoist, and indigenous Tibetan religious practice, although the singing bowl seems to have been a fairly modern innovation. Some healing traditions associate various notes or tones of these bowls with particular types of energy, or parts of the body. Others simply observe that the sustained vibrations create a state of relaxation and alertness, that opens the mind to non-verbal insight.


For this moment, I invite you to relax both your body and your mind. Find a balanced position that allows you to feel grounded and supported by the earth beneath you, and let go of conscious worry. Set down the burdens you are carrying; they will wait faithfully for you to return to them. Notice your breathing, and the lingering scent of the sage. I will invite the bowl to sing for about two minutes, and let it fade into two minutes of silence. It may feel like a long time, because our culture is addicted to constantly shifting stimulation, but I encourage you to float on it with as little tension as possible.
Tom will bring us out of the silence into singing together the meditation on breathing. Join in whenever you are ready.


Philosophy began with the longing to know what the world is made of. Some have proposed that the entire universe, and we ourselves, are a set of vibrations, a complex weaving of harmonies across time and space. Perhaps it is so. Listen.


Part Two: Meditation/Deepening

Unitarian Universalists and Humanists tend to ground our theology in human experience, since we have little to no confidence in somebody else’s ideas about divine authority. Worship and spiritual practices are human experiences; they may be liberating or oppressive, enjoyable or annoying; some of them may come easily, some may require significant effort. In the search for greater self-awareness, compassion, integrity and resilience, most traditions teach that there is a state of mind that is only accessible on the other side of boredom. As long as we remain captive to the unending stream of stimulation from the fast-paced world around us, this idea suggests, we will be oblivious to the both the wisdom and the joy that is always present, but rarely experienced. In order to hear the birds singing, or notice the snow falling, or truly give another person our attention and care, we have to turn off the TV inside our heads – which, unless you have some practice, is more easily said than done. Spiritual exercises, like meditation or prayer, help us to develop that skill, and it almost always involves slowing down and quieting.


This process can be surprisingly uncomfortable to a mind that is habituated to constant distraction; like a fretful child, it will first respond by complaining, “This is boring!” And yet, as many wise teachers have long instructed, if we persist through that initial protest, our minds and our random bodily energies will calm down, into a slower rhythm that is more restful and deeply attentive than our usual agitation. This is the purpose of many forms of repetitive ritual, like chanting, or saying the rosary, or reciting scripture, or gazing at images, or mandalas, or a candle flame, or even the seemingly pointless movement of walking a labyrinth. There is a place beyond boredom, that we only get to by going through the sense of tediousness, and in fact embracing it. It cannot be forced; we won’t get there if we are resentful, if we attach to the inner voice that proclaims, “What a waste of time!” But if we can transcend that irritable resistance, something more generous and glad may open up inside; an awareness of blessing, a tenderness toward all life, beyond our own self-interest; a celebration of our connections and interdependence. That mindfulness is most often beyond words; trying to describe it verbally is always an approximation, or ends up sounding like riddles and paradox. Yet those who have experienced it know it for a resource; a well of courage and comfort and peace of heart that can nourish our everyday living.


Another resource that arises from practice like this is what gets engraved on the neural pathways of our brain, and music is a powerful tool for that, but words will work also. How many parents here have had their children request the same bedtime story or song to sing in the car, or video to watch, over and over again? To the point where they knew every line, and made sure you didn’t skip a page, even before they could actually read? How many of you remember fondly a book from your childhood that you all but memorized? I know that when you get a group of UUs around a piano with a cooperative player, those who come out of other religious traditions take delight in recalling the hymns of their early years, even though they disagree profoundly with that theology now. And I know that in memory care facilities, people who are almost non-responsive to anything else, will lift their heads and sing with perfect recall the songs of their youth, or the poems they memorized in grade school.


Madison Avenue knows that the human spirit will bond to words and images that are frequently repeated – even something as inherently uninteresting as the ingredients of a Big Mac. Spiritual practice invites us to be intentional about what words and songs and images are etched deeply into our being at a level below the conscious. They are what will be available to us in moments of solemn importance and crisis, when we struggle to say something meaningful, to ourselves and others. It is only by deliberate focus that we replace the trivialities of the popular with the wisdoms that have stood the test of time. When I am in my dotage, I want my eyes to light up with recognition when I hear the words of Shakespeare, or Mary Oliver, or For the Beauty of the Earth, and not twoallbeefpatties, or the Empire Carpet phone number. So, in our quest for innovation and creativity, let us not forget the importance of repetition in building a useful spiritual vocabulary.


The offering of incense is another scent-based element of worship. In some Buddhist practice, it is often made with three sticks at a time, representing the three gems, or refuges of the human spirit – the teacher, the truth, and the community. The burning of the incense reminds the practitioner of impermanence, and the need to burn away the obstacles that prevent us from living as awakened beings. And, just as the fragrance of the incense spreads out into the world, so compassion, helpfulness, and wisdom spread out from the doer, to sweeten life for everyone.


The steel tongue drum, sometimes called a cathedral drum, is a third millennium invention; the originals were crafted from discarded propane tanks. Although simple tunes can be played on it, it is generally used for private or group meditation because there is really no way to play it wrong; the notes create harmonies no matter what order, and it can be tapped either fast or slow. Once again, we will let the drum sound us into a period of silence, and come out of the silence with song.


On the other side of boredom, where our insistence on being constantly aroused and entertained gives way, is a blessed quiet. In that calm place, the hub of the turning wheel, the swirling cares and demands of everyday settle like floating leaves to the bottom of a stilled pond, and the water of our inner being is luminously clear. Follow the sound, follow the breath, follow to the center; find the true self that waits your coming, and offers peace.


Part Three: Connection/blessing

Smell and hearing are our most public senses. You can easily touch something that no one else is touching, or taste something that no one else is eating. People in the same environment may focus visually on different things, and literally not see what someone else does. But when there is scent or sound in the environment, pretty much everyone will be aware of it, and affected by it. We all breathe the air that is around us, and we cannot easily close our ears as we can our eyes. Aromas and sounds create a common experience, and a connection among those who share them.


In fact, we are designed for shared experiences; they are essential to our thriving as humans. Evolution has made us a social species, and we do not function competently without a certain level of contact with others of our kind. The technical term for this is that we have open limbic loops; our most basic bodily functions become unstable in isolation; we need the presence of others to help us regulate our breathing, our heart rate, our blood pressure, our digestion, our immune systems, our hormonal fluctuations, our sleep rhythms. We must, literally, breathe together. Infants are known to fail to thrive, and actually die, if deprived of the human contact that helps to regulate their immature systems, and we are only slightly more independent in our mature physiology. And so it is that our spiritual practice, by calling us to go deep into our inner worlds, also invites us to an embracing human commonality, to recognize in our depths the need we have for one another. Religion – the act of re-connecting – celebrates this interdependence as the location of the holy, and the intention of the creator. It is not a design flaw, or a weakness from which we suffer, but a gift – that prevents us from retreating too far into our isolated egos and self-will.


By gathering together for worship, we nurture our connection to other humans; each of us helps to stabilize others, just as others help to stabilize us – in ways that we are sometimes aware of, but mostly not. When we stand, and sit, and move together, we are completing that open limbic loop. Especially when we sing together, and our breathing and our pulses synchronize, we are connected not just emotionally, but physically as well. When you think about it, everything that we do here in this congregation is finally a con-spiracy – a breathing together for the sake of changing the world. Just sitting in the community of shared silence, if we embrace the opportunity it offers, can give us strength and resolve, courage and comfort, self-understanding and wider compassion for the work that must be done on behalf of freedom and justice for the oppressed. When we teach each other how to go deep, how to find within ourselves the poisoning root of our fears, and the inexhaustible sources of meaning and hope, we create the ties that bind us in love; in mutual accountability and care.


The humanist poet Ken Patton says this about church:
We come to be reminded that our human siblings surround us;
Their voices stir the surrounding air
With the gladness of our spoken names.
We enlarge our voices in common speaking and singing;
We try again that solitude,
Found in the midst of those who, with us, seek their hidden reckonings.


Once you are part of the con-spiracy, you are never really alone. Even your solitary meditation – in the forest, or the hermit’s cell, or your own living room – connects you to the community of practice – of memory and promise. The place where you once heard the bells, and felt your spirit resonate; where the scent of sage or incense once marked a moment of wonder, or transformation, or high purpose. Then the silence will always be a part of our shared silence, and the chant that lives in your neural pathways will be one that lives in us as well.


Those who grew up in a ‘high church’ tradition, like the Anglicans or the Catholics, may recognize our final scent device as a thurible. It is used for the burning of incense during the mass, usually carried in procession by an acolyte, and swung on its chains, to distribute the smell. It employs a piece of lighted charcoal to burn frankincense – that stuff that was given to the baby Jesus by the three wise men, as a sign of his heavenly nature. If you stay for a moment after our closing song, you can see a video of the world’s largest thurible in action; I promise that it is impressive. But for now, I invite you to one final sequence of sound and silence and song. We will begin with our own brand-new hand bell choir.


The inreach of the spirit, to the center and soul of our individual beings, always ends in outreach. For what is ultimately found within is the capacity to love, which only bears fruit in the outward realm of community. Where love and charity are, within us, among us, and beyond us, there everything holy is.