By incense, I don't mean the joss stick you find at the vegetarian whole food co-op, if those still exist now that Whole Foods and GNC have occupied the twin niches of what the health food store used to be. Nor the gas-station joss stick, or the battered Nag Champa box you find at Hot Topic or the bored Indian bodega.
By this I mean the dried gums and perfumes - the collection of multicolored, jewel-like objects placed on a burning charcoal, inside either a censer or a thurifer. Church incense. Made by monks in many a tradition, and used in Orthodox, Catholic, and Episcopalian churches. Frankincense and myrrh are used in many of them, but also certain trade secrets in terms of perfumery. It can be floral, it can be astringent, but always with a heavy, woody base scent that's delicious.
It was the Feast of the Presentation yesterday, and as such church started outside the church itself, in the narthex. After a choral chant, we lit candles and processed in, with the thurifer thoroughly spreading the smoke freely as he went. There's enough coming out of the thurifer to change the scent of an entire cathedral. Something about the dying light outside and the candles and incense make for a holier sense to a place.
Incense is something a lot of parishioners like, but choristers hate with a mad passion. Difficult to sing with cloying smoke in your throat, so the choir director and the clerics are sometimes at odds about when to use it, and there's some artful negotiation with the vergers and the choir in terms of how to try and keep the incense and the singers as far apart as possible.
And there's some degree of concern there, as well. As has been reported in many traditions, incense may actually increase your risk of cancer. Not to the same degree as smoking cigarettes, but there are compounds in burning anything that you really shouldn't breathe. This has been more noticed in Buddhist setups and home altars where tight space and more joss being burned exacerbates the problem.
It's also been shown that burning incense is actually a mild hallucinogen - that there's more to the spiritual high than merely listening to a gorgeous Psalm being chanted while lit with the phantasmagoric glow produced by a stained glass window.
And because of this, I'm not sure how happy I am to be sitting quite so close to the closet they keep the thurifer in during the service, but I really appreciate it. When the thurifer goes and grabs it out of the closet it's like something out of a Cheech and Chong movie, perhaps in more ways than one.
But religion is often way too over-thought, and not experienced enough. I have a pound of so of it for the house that I burn sparingly. Just in case.