Friday, November 2, 2007

A Sweet Task

For most of my life in Holy Cross I have been in authority positions: I've been Prior of several of our monasteries, I've been the Novice Master, I've been the Assistant Superior. I have spent a lot of time in the administration of monastic institutions, and like all administrators, I have learned that good administration is at base a pastoral task. So pastoring and administrating have been my life - mostly.

But as the years passed by I noticed an increasing feeling that something was missing. Leadership is a very wonderful and creative life, and it has taught me very much about people and about myself. But I needed something else. And finally after enough years had gone by I realized what that something else was. I needed a craft. I needed to use my hands. I needed to make something beautiful. I needed to be involved in shaping something, producing something, making something. I needed the grounding that physical work would provide, and I needed the spiritual involvement that working with my hands would bring. For a while I thought that carpentry was what I needed to take up, and I still think that would be wonderful if I had the time for it. But a combination of availability and need stepped in, a number of years ago, and gave me the craft that has been mine ever since.

I make incense.

For about 35 years Holy Cross has had a small business that provides liturgical incense to parishes and also to individuals who want to use a charcoal-burning incense in their homes. At one point the brother who was doing the work moved on to other work and someone was needed to make the incense, so I stepped in, and I've been doing it ever since.

Did you ever know anyone who made incense? I can testify to the fascination that the business has for our guests, and I often show off the workroom where I make Holy Cross Incense to people who oooh and aaah about the smells and the process.

It's not complicated. We use a base composed mostly of Frankincense to which a small amount of Myrrh is added. Both are resins and are made from tree saps that are imported from the Middle East. We work with a lovely bunch of people who run a fragrance importing business called Shemen Tov (which is Hebrew and might be translated roughly as "good stuff"), and they supply me with top-quality ingredients to work with . We used to deal with a company named Aphrodesia, which everyone found most amusing, but they went out of business.

To the base of Frankincense and Myrrh is added a tincture which is made of a scented oils and a resin, both dissolved in some solvent alcohol. We blend four tinctures for our incenses: they are Santiago (lemon) St Augustine (rose) Sancta Crux (rosewood) and St Benedict (a non-sweet scent whose base is Labdanum oil and which smells rather like butterscotch to me). The tinctures are stirred into the mixture of Frankincense and Myrrh and left to dry. I stir them every day, and depending on the blend I am making, it takes anywhere from 4 days to a month for the blend to dry and cure. Then it is packaged and sold.

Over the years I have developed a real sense of craftsmanship about my work. Each of our blends has its own personality. The smell changes just slightly with every new batch of ingredients and I need to work with that to make sure that what we are producing is recognizably the same from batch to batch, and that it is pleasing to smell. Each blend dries differently, and looks differently and needs to be handled differently. When I started out I thought I would learn all I needed to know about this simple process in a week or so. Now, some 20 years later, I am still learning about it. I am still making slight adjustments to the recipes. I still haunt kitchen supply stores in search of equipment that will make the measuring, stirring and drying easier and more even. Just recently I found a plastics manufacturer that has exactly the right sized container with high sides (impossible to find until now) that makes the work of stirring a lot easier and less messy. Every time that I think I have reduced the process to a matter of routine, something else comes along and the incense teaches me yet something else about the creative process.

It's an important part of my life. The workshop is in the basement - not removed from the community's life, but off to one side. It's often peaceful and very quiet. On Saturdays Kairos (the choir that is Artist in Residence here) rehearses in the room next to the workshop so I work to the melodies of several centuries of choral works. From time to time members of the community drift in and out to share the fascination with the process. Often, especially when I'm packaging a large number of our Sampler Packs, I am all alone, doing this rhythmic repetitive task, which goes very well with breathing and with meditation. So I pray my way through the manufacture of our incense and hope that some of the peaceful ingredient of prayer comes across along with the smell.

I would say that the making of incense is part of my spiritual life, but the fact is everything I do is part of my spiritual life. So I'll say that it's a special part of my spiritual life. I do feel more grounded when I deal with the earthy realities of buying, sorting, blending, packaging and selling. The workshop itself echoes the Jesus Prayer for me, because it so often has accompanied the tasks that I perform there.

It's important to me to have something to do that doesn't involve sorting papers or analyzing personal or communal problems. Certainly sorting papers and problem solving are part of the incense business, but there's always the basics - measuring, stirring, testing, waiting. There's a depth to this simple task that I don't get any other way, and I value it very greatly. It's a work that is both simple and profound. I am more whole because of it.

Censing the plaque
Originally uploaded by Randy n/OHC

Br. Bede getting you use the fruit of his labor at the inauguration of our Middle House's new entrance as the Br. Douglas Brown Memorial

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