The End of Frankincense?

N.B. this is a post about incense and not a Halloween-themed post on Frankenstein!

During the 2017 Societas Liturgica conference in I was very impressed by the tour of Chevetogne Abbey and in particular of their incense workshop. I did not fully understand the explanation of the theoretical framework of the creation of incense and the relationship between modern science, medicine and ancient philosophy that they use for the creation of particular varieties of incense. However the enthusiasm that the monk responsible for the workshop had was contagious. I was fascinated by the process that they showed us. 

So I was sad to read a disturbing article in the New York Times on the threat to the world’s population of Boswellia papyrifera trees. The Times reported how a study in Nature sustainability found that “the trees [producing most of the world’s incense] were old and dying, and most hadn’t produced a young tree in half a century. Models suggested that with no intervention, populations would collapse.” The study forecast that, barring a radical intervention, the world’s incense production would half in twenty years. This is particularly worrying, given that the Christian Churches are not the only users of incense, it is also being increasingly used in natural products and remedies and is an important ingredient in some of the better perfumes such as Chanel No. 5.

This challenge to the world’s incense supply can be considered to be yet another example of the problems that our lack of stewardship of our world is creating.  While Laudato Si’ does not mention incense, number 235 speaks of the importance of “bodiliness” in liturgy that is very relevant here:

The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life. Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different plane. Water, oil, fire and colours are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise. The hand that blesses is an instrument of God’s love and a reflection of the closeness of Jesus Christ, who came to accompany us on the journey of life. Water poured over the body of a child in Baptism is a sign of new life. Encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature. This is especially clear in the spirituality of the Christian East. “Beauty, which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in the shape of a church, in the sounds, in the colours, in the lights, in the scents”. For Christians, all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation. “Christianity does not reject matter. Rather, bodiliness is considered in all its value in the liturgical act, whereby the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Holy Spirit and is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation”

However, there is some good news, in this respect. Some people are worried about the sustainability of incense production. The Boswellia Project ,which is based in Ethopia’s Tigray Region, is an example of one such project. Here some French scientists have teamed up with the local Christian community to help create a sustainable agricultural project. So far 40,000 Boswellia trees are being cultivated in 1,000 acres of protected forest. A video showing the natural beauty of the project can be seen here.

Today, particularly with the current Synod, there is a lot of talk about ecology and the need to respect nature. Maybe we should reflect on how the “bodiliness” of our liturgy can help sustain the world and particularly how our parishes can help promote integral human development and respect for nature even in the small decisions such as which brand of incense we use.

One comment

  1. I will say, at least as a Midwesterner, it’s been a while since I’ve been to a church that uses actual Boswellia frankincense. Most places I’ve been to have moved onto a conifer oil or myrrh blend, not so much for ecological concerns (though their sources are more plentiful in our corner of the world) but because they’re easier on those with allergies and it doesn’t get “overburned” the way conventional frankincense does.

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