“And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” —Revelation 8:4.
I slowly stand up from my seat next to the Bishop’s chair near the altar at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Gulf Shores, Alabama, as the organist plays the prelude to the closing hymn, “Lift High the Cross.” The music is uplifting, but suddenly I am transported and raised to another space. There is an unusual burning smell in the air. I look up and see two almost straight lines of black smoke rapidly rising at least a foot above the altar—and just as quickly disappearing into the air in front of the congregation.
I am aware, as the acolyte in the white alb passes by me to reach for the silver processional cross, that she just extinguished the two candles on the glass altar.
This smell is different from what I usually perceive at the end of the service. For me this is an especially holy smell, and it is accompanied by an uplifting holy smoke, stronger than incense. It is raw, attention getting, signaling that something has happened. The black smoke can be seen, certainly, by those few in the front rows of the congregation; but the smell probably persists only around the altar. By verse two of the hymn, as the crucifer starts to lead the choir members in their blue cassocks and white surplices out of the church, I realize what this is all about.
The Altar Guild of Holy Spirit uses real candles, not the oil candles that I am familiar with in many of the churches I visit or serve. This is the smell and smoke from extinguished candle wax.
This is also the residual fragrance after a session of spiritual direction with seekers as they depart. I light the candle at the beginning of a session when I am doing spiritual direction to symbolize our meeting as holy, as we care for our souls. I extinguish the candle at the end of our time to symbolize the passing on of what we have shared. I know our time together as spiritual friends is holy work, just as our Eucharist together on Sunday is a holy time.
The smell and the smoke tell me that whatever has happened is now being lifted up, spreading into the air of our surroundings, our universe. The Word we had together has now moved away from the altar or our meeting place and out into the world. We can no longer see the smoke, but it is there. I experience the smell only briefly, but it is an icon of what is happening.
The holy Word has moved on with its healing blessing out into the world, making a difference in all our wounded spaces.
Bless the Altar Guild of Holy Spirit for teaching me a little more about the movement of the holy.