The Uncessary Necessity of ‘smells and bells’

At 33,000 feet, soaring above the earth and clouds and yet infinitely beyond  touching the rich expanse of the universe and eternity… I was reading a work of art.  The Inner Kingdom by Bishop Kallistos Ware.  No setting could have been more perfect as I read about the beauty of the Holy Eucharist, while gazing out my window upon the limitless expanse of clouds, sun and sky.  In that self-same moment, I said again and again, “Glory to You O Lord, for the beauty of Your creation, and Your Holy Worship…”

Taken from the chapter entitled “The Theology of Worship”

“To an Orthodox Christian it is of utmost importance that the act of worship should express the joy and beauty of the Kingdom of heaven.  Without the dimension of the beautiful our worship will never succeed in being prayer in the fullest sense, prayer of the heart as well as the reasoning brain.  This joy and beauty of the Kingdom cannot be properly expounded in abstract arguments and logical explanations; it has to be experienced, not discussed.  And it is above all through symbolic and ritual actions – through the burning of incense, through the lighting of a lamp or candle before an icon – that this living experience is rendered possible.  These simple gestures express far better than any words, our whole attitude towards God, all our love and adoration; and without such actions our worship would be grievously impoverished.

“Why offer incense or burn candles?  Why make prostrations or the sign of the Cross?  If we attempt a verbal explanation, we know perfectly well that it embodies only a small part of the truth.  And that, surely, is precisely the reason for the symbolic action.  If the poet could express in plain prose what he has said in his poetry, if the artist or musician could express in words what she has said in paint or sound, then there would be no need for  the poem or picture or symphony.  Each exists because it expresses something which cannot be expressed in any other way.  So it is in worship.  If it were possible to say in words why we burn candles and incense, then we could rest content with the verbal explanation and forego the symbolic act altogether.

“The whole value of the symbol in worship is that it expresses something which cannot be said through the spoken word alone, that it reaches a part of our being which cannot be touched by rational arguments.  The symbol is on the one hand simpler and more immediately accessible than a verbal explanation, and on the other hand it penetrates more deeply into the heart of reality. 

On the purely pragmatic level, all the beauty and symbolism in our worship is unnecessary and useless.  We can use odor-destroying sprays instead of incense, neon lighting instead of lighting candles.  But the human being is not simply a pragmatic and utilitarian animal, and those who look more deeply into human nature will quickly appreciate how much we need this ‘useless’ beauty…”

Unnecessary it is indeed, for we are beyond the categories of ‘necessary’.  Beauty is never ‘necessary’, ‘functional’, or ‘useful’.  And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love.  And the Church is love, expectation and joy… in the Eucharist we are standing in the presence of Christ, and like Moses before God, we are to be covered in His glory…”  Father Alexander Schmemann


Read this marvelous article in Christianity Today.  CT interviews Bishop Kallistos “Fullness and the Center” Q&A on evangelism, evangelicals and the Orthodox Church”


One thought on “The Uncessary Necessity of ‘smells and bells’

  1. This has to be the single best explanation I have yet heard about all the ‘extras’ that are used and so foreign to Protestants. The explanation seems so simple and concise but it is deeply profound. Thank you for posting this and sharing!

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