The Fragrance of Sanctity: In the Presence of Our Lady

Our heavenly Father knows well how to delight His creatures’ human senses. This is never more evident than in spring, when nature, God’s own handiwork, surrounds us not only with the beauty of plants in full flower, but also with their aroma. Hyacinth, lavender, lilac, and sweetpea are just a few of the many varieties that fall into this fragrant category, blossoming at various times during the months of spring.

A springtime amble can bring sweet surprises, as what begins as a feast for the eyes becomes a delight for the sense of smell as well. Just such a walk on a recent day brought to mind a well-loved passage from Sacred Scripture:

Like cinnamon, or fragrant balm, or precious myrrh
I give forth perfume;
Like galbanum and onycha and sweet spices,
Like the odor of incense in the holy place. (Sir 24:15)


As it always does, this particular passage calls Our Lady to my mind, and it occurs to me that in addition to the beauty of her person – the visible reflection of the spotless purity of her soul –- there may have been an aroma of holiness following her wherever she walked. I find it no coincidence that the ancient substances referred to in the passage were used for sacred purposes: anointing and incense for worship in holy places (Ex 30:22-25, 34-36). After all, as the human vessel which carried the Son of God, was not Our Lady the personification of “the holy place”?

The phenomenon known as the odor of sanctity is well documented in the history and tradition of our faith. In the company of a person of great holiness, many have given witness to the presence of a pleasing scent of unknown origin – not a flower in sight, yet there is a distinct perfume redolent of the beauty of nature.

This unusual situation has been documented as occurring with holy persons, both living and deceased, from the earliest days of the Church to modern times. Examples include St. Polycarp, a second-century martyr; Carmelite Saints Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux in the 16th and 19th centuries, respectively; and more recently Saint Pio, who died in 1968, and whose stigmata gave off a pleasing aroma during his lifetime.

Where Our Lady is concerned, I can imagine the fragrance of sanctity which surrounded her as a distinctive characteristic of the Nazareth home she shared with Jesus and Saint Joseph, as familiar as her beloved face to her Son and His foster father. Wherever she walked, the heavenly aroma would have surrounded her like a fragrant cloud imbued with the essence of nature’s most precious elements.

This line of thinking leads me to wonder: could this have been a special gift of a loving Father to the one He had chosen from all eternity to bear His Son?

Perhaps so. Perhaps the fragrance of holiness followed her from her earliest days, and when that momentous journey to Bethlehem came to its end, infused even the animals’ noisome shelter with the sweet scent of sanctity. The newborn Jesus would have learned to associate this perfume with His Mother from the start.

Consider the possibility that Mary’s holy aroma accompanied the Holy Family to Egypt, back home to Nazareth, to Jerusalem for the high holydays – all throughout those special times of her life, and also the many ordinary days of family life spent with Jesus and Saint Joseph.

After Jesus left the family home to begin His public ministry, there were occasions when Our Lady was in His company, at the wedding feast at Cana, for example (Jn:1-12). How reassuring it would have been for Jesus on these occasions to experience once again that familiar scent which He would associate with His Mother, among all people. How it would have recalled to His mind the many happy, sweet memories of days passed with her during His years of growing into manhood.

When the brutal end of Jesus’ earthly days approached its horrific close, the presence of Our Lady and her holy aroma would have been a balm to Jesus’ tortured body and soul, even as He carried His cross, and then as she stood mourning beneath it. To my thinking, it is a source of comfort to imagine that this heavenly bouquet remained behind in the tomb where the Lord’s body was placed on that terrible day.

Into Mary’s own final hours – and perhaps especially then – the fragrance of sanctity would have surrounded her. At her Assumption, she would have carried it with her up to heaven itself.

I conclude my reflection on that lofty thought, returning in my heart to that beautiful passage which prompted it:

Like cinnamon, or fragrant balm, or precious myrrh
I give forth perfume;
Like galbanum and onycha and sweet spices,
Like the odor of incense in the holy place. 

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