Scent Brings us Home, Even at Church

If you were like me, the scent of your mom’s home cooked meals filled the house especially when company was coming or on Sundays.  Familiar scents that you knew meant you would be with family, nourished, and comforted.

I moved out 20 years ago, so I rarely get the chance to smell my mom’s cooking in our old house.  I am usually the cook in my house.

For  years I would wear my mom’s perfume on test days in high school and college to calm me down. The scent of mom relaxed me.  My boys sometimes come and smell me.  If I have perfume on they sometimes comment on how good I smell.  One day in particular my son Nico, smelled my arm and said how great I smelled.  I had not added any lotions or perfume, so I asked what I smelled like.  He said with a grin, and slightly euphoric glaze in his eyes, ” You smell like mommy.”

When I would visit a grandparent’s older house, it had a very distinct smell too. Probably a mixture of years of aging dust,  visitors, food, and fireplace smells. My grandparents have long since passed away, but every once in a while, I will walk in a house, and smell a similar scent, and it will bring me back to the sensation of being a visiting child in my grandparents house.  Happy memories surround these smells.

At 27, I moved to Nebraska for a short time. I was very homesick for California, even though I appreciated aspects of Omaha.  The one place I felt at home was the Catholic church. In my travels around the country, and to other countries, I also feel most at home when I enter a Catholic church.

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I believe this is partly because it smells like “home.” Our Catholic home has a very unique scent.  It is a combination of holy water, incense, burning candles, maybe years of old dust, and wood pews.  Those smells permeate any carpeting, wood, or other odor absorbing surfaces after a short time.

I just walk into a church and draw in a deep breath, and know I am home and safe.  I failed to realize earlier on why I felt this way around the world, until I realized how uniform it is for us as Catholics.  Not only the prayers, but also the Mass and songs are constant in our churches. But the scents of our Faith serve as a reminder to our very core that we are “home” when we arrive.

Why is smell so intimately linked with memory? One reason is that the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that processes smell, interacts with regions of the brain that are responsible for storing emotional memories. Through the process of conditioned learning, a smell becomes associated with the particular experience, person, or time period with which it is repeatedly paired.  (From “The power of scent: Memory, emotion, and attraction” by Juli at Psych Your Mind)

A question arises as to how the limbic system is able to remember past smells, while the fact is that the olfactory neurons are continually replaced after about every sixty days. The reason is, when the olfactory neurons die, a new set of neurons generates beneath them. These axons of neurons that express the same receptor always lead to the same destination.  (From “The Power of Smell” by Vandana Mathrani)

At Mass this past Sunday it was the one-year anniversary of the opening of our new Church.  The incense was brought in, and blessed the altar and people.  The scent that I have smelled throughout all my years.  As a child we all pretended to gag and choke as we had Benedictions in school.  But now as they blessed us on Sunday, I drank in the scent, and knew I was connected to all people, to the Church, to this place, and that I was in a safe and beautiful place that has such rich grounding traditions as incense to permeate myself and my soul in more than one way.

Copyright 2014 Marya Jauregui

One Comment
  1. January 22, 2014 | Reply

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