by Romano Guardini
"AND I saw an angel come and stand before
the altar, having a
golden censer; and there was given to him much
incense, and the
smoke of the incense of the prayers of the
saints ascended up
before God from the hand of the angel."
So writes Saint John in
the mysterious book of the Apocalypse.
The offering of an incense is a generous and
beautiful rite. The
bright grains of incense are laid upon the
red-hot charcoal, the
censer is swung, and the fragrant smoke rises
in clouds. In the
rhythm and the sweetness there is a musical
quality; and like
music also is the entire lack of practical
utility: it is a
prodigal waste of precious material. It is a
pouring out of
"When the Lord was at supper Mary brought
the spikenard of great
price and poured it over his feet and wiped
them with her hair,
and the house was filled with the odor of the
spirits objected. "Whereto this waste?"
But the Son of God has
spoken, "Let her alone. She hath done it
against my burial."
Mary's anointing was a mystery of death and
love and the sweet
savour of sacrifice.
The offering of incense is like Mary's
anointing at Bethany. It
is as free and objectless as beauty. It burns
and is consumed
like love that lasts through death. And the
arid soul still takes
his stand and asks the same question: What is
the good of it?
It is the offering of a sweet savour which
Scripture itself tells
us is the prayers of the Saints. Incense is
the symbol of prayer.
Like pure prayer it has in view no object of
its own; it asks
nothing for itself. It rises like the Gloria
at the end of a
psalm in adoration and thanksgiving to God for
his great glory.
It is true that symbolism of this sort may
lead to mere
aestheticism. There are imaginations in which
the fragrant clouds
of incense induce a spurious religiosity; and,
in such instances,
when it does so, the Christian conscience does
right to protest
that prayer should be made in spirit and in
truth. But though
prayer is a plain, straight-forward business,
it is not the so-
much-for-so-muchness which the niggardly
fleshless heart of the religious Philistine
would make of it. The
same spirit persists that produced the
objection of Judas of
Kerioth. Prayer is not to be measured by its
bargaining power; it
is not a matter of bourgeous common sense.
Minds of this order know nothing of that
magnanimous prayer that
seeks only to give. Prayer is a profound act
of worship, that
asks neither why nor wherefore. It rises like
sweetness, like love. The more there is in it
of love, the more
of sacrifice. And when the fire has wholly
sacrifice, a sweet savour ascends.