The act of censing has been said to create a pleasing and purified ritual space. There is nothing quite as inspiring as walking in to a sacred place and being hit by the smell of lovely incense, which immediately transports us into a more reverent state of mind. What are the reasons censing is important, or is it?
The Rite of Censing came before, most, if not all, the current concepts of religion. It is said to have originated from a distant past when men worshiped the sun and other fiery forces of nature. Most researchers agree that there is a connecting link between the use of incense in the ancient mysteries of the past, and the speculative Freemasonry of the present day, for those lodges who use incense. From what I have read, this connection can be fairly well traced by archaeologists. However, there is less agreement on why it is important.
Is censing and the use of incense in ritual more practical or symbolic today?
I recently read an interesting book called “A history of the use of incense in divine worship” (1909) by Cuthbert Atchley. It contains a rather unique and objective history of censing within ritual, both pre-Christian and Christian. I especially enjoyed the section explaining various Egyptian ceremonials. However, I was somewhat disappointed when I finally arrived at the end of the book to hear researcher Atchley’s conclusions:
“The ultimate basis of all use of incense in the Church is its pleasant odour; that is, it is fumigatory. The more superficial reasons are what are called ceremonial.”
In other words, he is saying that the main use of censing and incense is for “deodorant” purposes, to mask awful smells and the stink of decaying bodies, and so on. He says that any connection to ceremonial purposes is “superficial.” While I might be somewhat forgiving because the book was written over a century ago, the thinking underlying still seems flawed, in my mind at least.
If something did have a practical origin at some point in time, does that mean that any symbolic value is of no account? Following from that, should it be done away with accordingly? It seems to me that this fails to think deeply enough about the nature and function of ritual and ceremony – no matter what century we are talking about.
It is true that many of the early uses of incense were practical and operative. For example, the fragrance obscured odors, and was aesthetically pleasing. There existed a mystical healing art hidden surrounding the use of certain incenses. Ancient Egyptians (3000 BC) practiced medicine with aromatic plants and even went so far as to establish astrological relationships for them. There are many pictures that can be seen where a Pharaoh is depicted with a censer casting the incense. Each civilization, throughout the ages have all added their own contribution to this handed down practical knowledge.
Over time, the burning of incense formed a link to spirituality in a speculative sense when it was offered to the gods alongside sacrifices and prayer. Incense is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The psalmist expresses the symbolism of incense and prayer:
“Let my prayer rise like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:1)
What the ancients knew intuitively, science has verified today. Of all of the five senses, the sense of smell is most strongly connected to the areas of the brain that process memory. Even the smallest hint of a fragrance that you had previously associated with a certain place can bring you back to there in moments. Incense, then, is a way to tap the mind quickly and with a great deal of exactitude. Certain combinations of aromas can quickly adjust not only the atmosphere of the room but the atmosphere of the emotions and mind. Knowing all this, how, then, is censing significant in Freemasonry?
A Symbolic Perspective from C.W. Leadbeater
Freemason Charles W. Leadbeater placed a great deal of importance on the ceremonial value of censing in his book “The Hidden Life in Freemasonry.” He said that the entire process of censing in a Masonic Lodge is meant to prepare and purify. It provides an atmosphere of solemnity and due introspection. He explains that the ceremony of censing, being a vortical movement, is connected with the way in which the Great Architect has constructed the universe.
“In the movements made and in the plan of the Lodge were enshrined some of the great principles on which that universe had been built.”
He thought the censing ritual to be significant giving four main reasons:
Leadbeater’s premise is that the basis of any ritual is intent. The intentional thoughts of the members set the purpose and vision for the ritual. The lodge work concerns lifting and raising humanity from the human to the spiritual kingdom. The Craft performed is therefore applied to the mastery of the forces of one’s own nature, whereby “that which is below” may become truly and accurately aligned with “that which is above.”
“The time has come when men are beginning to see that life is full of invisible influences, whose value can be recognized by sensitive people. The effect of incense is an instance of this class of phenomena… each of which vibrates at its own rate and has its own value.”
Any of us who has experienced censing may have a different opinion of what it means. Practical or symbolic? Perhaps both? For myself, censing kindles a wonderment at the eternal mystery of an all-knowing Deity, whom we have not seen and cannot yet see clearly. Our human vision is not suited to that. The smoke obscures the air briefly. It is salutary for us to be reminded every now and again that our concept of the Most High is always incomplete, inadequate; that he is other, transcendent, and holy.