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​The perfume of the consecrated life

· Women consecrated ‘per evangelica consilia’ ·

“What would the world be without perfume? Since I believe that without perfume the soul would pine away, we burn a kind of myrtle at the end of the Shabbat”, we read in the section that comments on Exodus in the Jewish book of The Zohar (20a); and “What would become of the world if it were not for religious?” (Teresa of Avila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, 32, 11). These two sentences came to my mind while I was thinking of the consecrated life, compared by John Paul ii to the scene of the perfume of Bethany (cf. Jn 12:1-8): “From such a life ‘poured out’ without reserve there spreads a fragrance which fills the whole house. The house of God, the Church, today no less than in the past, is adorned and enriched by the presence of the consecrated life” (Vita Consecrata, 104). This may be the first time that the Magisterium has had recourse to this analogy, but the juxtaposition, which is repeated later in the same text when it evokes “unbounded generosity” (ibid., 105) and love, is certainly very evocative.

The boldness but also the originality of the metaphor convinced me at that time to entitle my commentary on the Apostolic Exhortation Il profumo di Betania [The perfume of Bethany]Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna): it was something really new.Of course, in spiritual, and particularly in mystical literature, the icon of Bethany – sometimes superimposed on that of the nameless woman in the house of Simon the leper: cf. Mk 14:3-9, Mt 26:6-13, Lk 7:36-50) – recurs with a certain frequency, emphasizing here and there. As, for example, Thérèse of Lisieux does when she gives emphasis to the “broken” vase and hence to the total loss of the perfume, which was irrecoverable.

When you think about it, the sense of smell refers immediately to perfumes and these refer to a sensual world with dizzying, complex connections and reverberations. For this reason the sense of smell might be considered little suited to the religious life and to religion itself. Yet the Bible is a book overflowing with perfumes, whose names are sometimes mysterious and at other times more familiar. “Oil and perfume make the heart glad”, we read in the Book of Proverbs (27:9). In its turn the Song of Solomon – a classic reference of mystics and also of the consecrated life – is the book of the Bible most vertiginously exposed to corporeal and even erotic senses, and perhaps for this reason it is also the most full of scent. The reciprocal game of meeting and seeking each other, of knowing and loving each other between the beloved man and the beloved woman mingles with the perfumes of the body and of nature.

The sense of smell is the most enigmatic of the five senses, and we know little about how it functions. Yet the perfume industry has always been very busy, full of experiments and curiosities, among religious too. A classic example, still today considered a pioneer and master is the French religious Louis Feuillée (1660-1732) of the order of Minims, who was botanist, geographer and traveller on behalf of Louis xiv. And monasteries have always been places of alchemy and essences, from the mysterious coenobium of Qumran to our day. How many perfumes, creams, spirits and essences have monks and nuns created!

A Jewish comment on Scripture declares that the sense of smell is the only one of the five senses that did not participate in original sin and for this reason has a nobility of its own in the service of the soul. And the “delight” of the Messiah who will come “shall be in [the perfume of] the fear of God” (Is 11:3). There are continuous references in the Bible to the joy of perfumes and to their variety, but there are also contrary consequences, such as a stench, for those who turn away from the Lord. A true feast of perfumes is found in the Gospels. The Magi begin it with the myrrh given to the newborn Jesus, and it ends with the sadness of the myrrh-bearers, the women who bring perfumes to anoint the body of the Teacher on the morning after the Sabbath and who become instead the privileged witnesses of the Resurrection.

An excess of perfumes surrounds the death of the Teacher. At least 32 kilos were brought by Nicodemus for the burial and at least three vases of aromas by the three Marys at dawn on Easter Day. We may compare this concentration of scents on the new sacrifice and on the new temple as a reach nichoach, “a perfume which inspires serenity”. That overwhelming mixture of aroma and smoke which pervaded the temple with the sacrifices is described in this way (cf. Is 6:4).

Many centuries later Paul was to invite the Christians of Corinth to be “The aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor 2:15). What is more, in responding to the generosity of the Christian community of Philippi, the Apostle recognizes “a fragrant offering” (Phil 4:18). As a conclusion to the Bible The Revelation to John perfumes with an abundance of sweet-smelling essences “with golden bowls full of incense” (5:8), with words that are re-echoed in the Pentateuch (cf. Num 7:86).

To return to our starting-point, how can we fail to smell the religious life as that “perfume which inspires serenity”, with the totality of its commitment, with its service which seeks new forms of closeness to others, with the ardour of a spousal and “unbounded generosity” and love, with the delicacy of a closeness which becomes tenderness and mercy and with the luminosity of so many of the elderly who have been transfigured in serenity? We have all known these people, transparent and diaphanous, not thanks to any artificial cosmetics but for their serenity and for a mysterious light which shines from within them. It is a light but also a perfume, what is known as “the odour of sanctity”, which goes hand in hand with “the smell of the sheep” of which Pope Francis speaks, thinking of priests who let themselves be imbued with the life and efforts of their people, whose instinct they recognize and respect, the sense of smell by which they orient themselves, that is, the instinct of faith (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 119).

Bruno Secondin




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 22, 2020