Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing?

by Andrew Rampton

Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing,
Stealing our senses all away,
never the like did come a-blowing,
Shepherds, in flow’ry fields of May,
Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing,
Stealing our senses all away?

A well–known reflection on the Nativity, this French carol describes a scent so lovely that it steals all of the senses away. But how could a scent impact, for example, hearing?

At the Societas Liturgica congress in Leuven this summer, we had the opportunity to visit the Benedictine monastery in Chevetogne. As a part of sharing their life with us, we heard a brief talk about their famous incense workshop from the brother in charge of that work. Part of the fame of Chevetogne’s incense is their ability to craft detailed, custom scents. Their offerings include a mixture, Cerasus Mertonensis, made for Merton College, Oxford, which smells like the blossoms of the cherry trees on the college property. Not a scent most of us associated with incense prior to our visit!

The crafting of these custom scents involves a great deal of research and scientific experimentation. The workshop at Chevetogne uses no synthetic compounds in their incense, so the desired scent must be carefully constructed from fragile, organic materials. Combining scents is a delicate and complicated effort. Not only must complimentary scents be placed together, the ratio and proportion of ingredients must be just right, or the scent produced falls flat rather than producing the combination of high, middle, and low notes that we enjoy smelling.

In researching how best to do this, the incense makers came across the work of nineteenth-century chemist and perfumer George William Septimus Piesse. Piesse had arranged familiar scents – citrus, floral, etc. – but in an unusual way. Rather than recipes for particular perfumes, Piesse had arranged the individual scents along musical scales. It is from Piesse’s writing that we get our terminology of “notes” when discussing scent today.

Piesse, however, took his model very seriously and described combinations of scent in ways that sounded more like musical theory than perfume chemistry. To the surprise of the incense makers at Chevetogne, when they began building “chords” with the scents as Piesse prescribed, it worked! Musically familiar “chords” reproduced using the plants Piesse indicated produced lovely perfumes with the ingredients in just the right proportions.

What to make of this fascinating concordance in our senses? Could perfumers and musicians work together and allow us to smell an organ toccata or hear the cherry blossoms of Merton College? What does this connection between sound and smell tell us about the way we perceive beauty in Creation?

Perhaps this is what the writer of the famous French Nativity carol meant. A fragrance of such overwhelming, perfect beauty that to smell it steals away all other senses, drowning them all in the perfect harmony of the incarnate God.

Andrew Rampton is a masters student in liturgy at Huron University College in London, Ontario.

6 comments

  1. Thank you for the reminder of the incense workshop at Chevetogne! I brought two scents back with me from the Societas Liturgica visit to the monastery, one of them a perfect Easter scent, named the “memory of the Myrophores.” —
    As to the connection between sound and smell you explore: people with various forms of synesthesia — I have a mild one — know very well how different sensory perceptions can arise as one (think of Olivier Messiaen’s “color hearing”). What I want to know is whether one can *nurture and develop* forms of synesthesia — I would love to be able to fuse scent and sound in my experience, but that is not the synesthesia I have… can this be learned?

    1. Fellow synaesthete here: all the reading I’ve done since the 80s indicates it’s given and fixed (though there is a school of thought that many more people start out with it than retain it into adulthood – perhaps only those who find a use for it retain it, for example, synaesthesia is associate with higher memory skills, which I makes complete sense to me as I’ve used mine for what might be called an entire grid of rapid memory recall (though the compensating problem for synaesthetes is that we’re receiving more incoming data, as it were, and it can be tiring as it accumulates).

    2. Thank you for these thoughts, Teresa! I’ve often wondered the same thing – whether synesthesia can be learned or developed. Even if not in the same way as a person who is born with the capacity experiences it, perhaps as we practice embodiment of prayer and other experiences more, we can come to associate different sensations with one another in particular, helpful ways. I’m not expert and it may not be possible, but it makes for a fascinating thought experiment!

  2. Thanks for this post and for the comments above, which invite deep reflection. My very initial response is that all sensory experiences that provide access to Beauty – be they scents or sounds or sights that somehow “work” – may perhaps be attuned to patterns and wavelengths that stem from the Source… and synesthetes may have particular perceptual gifts when it comes to gleaning the unity that lies beneath the surface of what most of the time we perceive, on the surface, as distinct senses.

    1. I agree, Silvia! If beauty is something which always points toward God – and I think it does – then I believe that it makes sense that at some point, the senses overlap and are perceived as a singular experience, rather than as distinct, separated experiences.

  3. Thanks for a fine post that brought back the wonderful experience we had at Chevetogne. As part of the tour of their incense workshop the monks gave us a color chart of fragrances too, linking sight as well as sound to fragrance. It was all brilliantly done. I was impressed with their scientific research and collaboration with scientists outside the monastery as well.

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