Among the delicious fragrances permeating the streets were oranges, myrtle and – never mind the aromas wafting out of the tapas bars – incense. Not the joss-stick-patchouli-musk-kind, but full-on church incense, the kind that lingers on the air long after a service is finished. Street vendors were dotted about the city selling that very same incense, burning it in brass conical censers.
My frequent transportation back to my childhood occurred because I was raised a Catholic and spent a considerable amount of time in church, inhaling that very same fragrance which I really love, even now – while my non-church-attending husband declared it gave him a headache.
Although I made a considered decision in my teens to leave that aspect of my life behind and have never returned, I continue to be amazed by the way it seeps into my consciousness in both expected and unexpected ways.
I still love to visit old cathedrals and churches, because, I tell myself, I wish to admire the soaring architecture without and the grandeur within. But, those all-pervasive and unmistakable aromas of incense, freshly lit (or just snuffed out) candles, and the quiet air of calm always transport me back in time to what I‘ve come to recognise as a comforting experience.
Does it subconsciously recall a gentler, less frenetic time? Is it the childhood awe of church services sung in Latin (forgetting for a moment my enforced attendance several times a week) and therefore more powerful because of the language? Is it the sheer tapestry of the music and the choral singing? Perhaps it was the soothing rhythm of communal repetition – essentially a chant – of familiar responses and prayers. All these years later, I’m still trying to pinpoint exactly what it is.
My cynical self – that can recall an entire prayer plus responses on hearing the opening line – dismisses it all as the product of brainwashed attendance at a Catholic school where no tenet of dogma could be questioned without the reply ‘because the Church says so’.
However it doesn’t need a church visit. A snatched overheard piece of once familiar music will lodge into the relevant part my brain and I’m away.
Most Christmas Eve afternoons find this church absentee in the kitchen preparing for Christmas Day with the festival of lessons and carols from King’s College Cambridge on the radio.
As a self- titled ‘recovering Catholic’ I mean no disrespect to those whose religion plays an important part of their daily life.
Although it’s no longer part of mine, I can’t undo or deny that early exposure to powerful words, music, atmosphere, or fragrance. Actually, I don’t want to and all recovering Catholics that I know say exactly the same.
This article was published in The Sussex Newspaper on January 13th 2012