As we find ourselves in the midst of the Great Fast during the Year of Mercy, I am reminded of a reflection from many years ago. I sat down in a chapel and soaked in the faint and familiar smell of incense that inevitably filled my senses and reminded me of the presence of the Lord. This routine had proven to be a comfort many times in my life and I was grateful to God for the gift of sitting within the beauty of His house.
Then something unexpected happened. Someone sat down right behind me who smelled so strongly of stale cigarettes that I was immediately distracted by the overpowering smell. My initial reaction was one of irritation. Why does he smoke so much? Why does he have to sit so close to me? Everything was going so well until he showed up! I tried to pray, though I was so hopelessly distracted, that his smell was really all that was on my mind. I heard his heavy breathing behind me and realized his smoking was also paying a heavy toll on his health. Then I heard the slight rustle of tin foil and the faint smell of mint. The smell of the mint was attempting to cover up the stench of stale smoke, but it was not succeeding. All of a sudden I had a revelation. I realized that he knew he smelled badly and he was trying to cover it up. As if in an instant, this scene was teaching me about the state of my own soul. I asked myself, “Am I ever like this man when I am living in a state of sin, affecting others with a less-than-pleasing spiritual aroma?”
I had recently attended a talk given by Fr. Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household. In his talk, he described how he once witnessed a housewife preparing to receive an unexpected guest. As the doorbell rang, she ran and closed all the doors to the messy rooms in the house in order to make the house appear presentable to the guest. Fr. Cantalamessa explained that these are precisely the doors in our heart that we should open when the Lord comes to visit, for it is the Lord who will heal and renew and restore these places in our soul. As I sat in that smelly chapel, I realized that just as this man smelled of smoke, so my soul smelled of sin. I had closed off the messy rooms in my heart to Christ. If I opened those doors, He might see what was really hidden deep inside, which was something I did not want anyone to see. And so, when I kept those doors closed, the sins became buried deep within my immortal soul and I really began to smell.
I really do not like to think that I smell, and I certainly do not want my friends to notice that I smell. How many time in my life have I tried to cover up the stench of my sin with little mints – little excuses that help me to pretend that things are not as bad as they seem. The sins begin to damage my heart and my soul and soon I find myself breathing heavily, overburdened with the weight on my shoulders. Sin not only makes me smell, but it is such a heavy burden! It is so damaging to the tissues of my soul, just as those cigarettes are damaging to the tissues of the lungs.
I also find myself under the false impression that my sin is only harming my own soul. I tell myself, “It is really just my own problem and I can try to deal with it at some point when I feel ready.” What I do not realize is that the stench of my sin is also distracting others away from the Lord. My sin affects my neighbor. Instead of radiating the light of Christ and the love of God, I am focused on myself and my own misery, bringing my neighbors down into the mud along with me. After all, second hand smoke is more damaging than first hand smoke. I am reminded of another of Fr. Cantalamessa’s stories. One day just after leaving a prayer group, Father got on a bus. He was just sitting there on the bus, but in his heart he was still singing praises to the Lord. A lady on the bus turned to him and said, “When I look at your face, I am obliged to believe in God.” His radiance was so palpable to those around him that without a word he was giving glory to God.
In that moment in the chapel, I could see a living image of the Mystery of Holy Repentance (Confession). It is only through repentance that our stench is washed away. For a smoker it takes ten years to rebuild the damage done to the lungs, but through the great mercy of God we are made whole in an instant. As we leave the confessional, our faces should be radiant with joy and our souls filled with the sweet perfume of grace. The Lord washes the deepest wounds, the deepest stenches, and we are reborn in Him. We no longer need to cover up our stench with little mints, because the stench no longer exists. We are clean. We are whole. We are more who He made us to be at that moment than at any other time. Imagine if our whole church, our whole community, received this great grace of reconciliation and healing. Imagine if we were all made whole though this Holy Mystery (Sacrament). Imagine if we were all in a state of grace as we stood and prayed together during the Liturgy. Imagine if the whole chapel was filled with the smell of incense, which is the prayer of the saints!
“The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God's holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out.” Revelations 8:4