Incense at Saint Mary's
"When he had taken the scroll,
the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders
fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp
and golden bowls full of incense,
which are the prayers of the saints."
(If you would like information on purchasing Saint Mary's incense, please email us.)
By John A. Delves
It wafts upward from our high altar. It reverently cloaks our Gospel readings. It wisps eerily through our processions. And it is so highly prized that visiting clergy often make a point of purchasing a supply in our Gift Shop to use on “special occasions” back home.
It is, in fact, our de facto trademark: the remarkable Saint Mary’s incense. And there is none other in the world just like it.
There can’t be. For one thing, each quantity is blended by hand according to the inspiration of the moment, not from a recipe. No two batches are exactly alike.
More importantly, only Saint Mary’s has Ken Isler, a well-tanned, cigar-smoking cross between Paul Hogan and Huckleberry Finn, whose artistry has earned him the unofficial title of Incensemeister. In fact, he is one of Saint Mary’s best-kept secrets, our own “phantom of the incense,” toiling away out of sight once or twice a year in a basement corner, and delivering up the grainy, gray miracle that earns us our nickname, “Smoky Mary’s.”
Though he is a long-time Saint Mary’s parishioner, Ken now has to fly East from his home in Arizona for each of these days-long mixing marathons, the most recent being this September—just in time to keep us from running out. Still, he doesn’t mind at all that the process is all but anonymous. Ask most Saint Marians where their incense comes from, Ken says, and, after a blank look, the speculation starts.
“It comes from a catalog, doesn’t it?”
“No, no. I heard it comes from some other parish.”
“Well I heard it comes from the basement.”
The basement it is. But it’s a long journey from the raw ingredients to the finished product smoldering in the thurible during Mass, or carefully spooned into tiny bags that will be sold in the gift shop for $20.
Costly? Yes, it is. That’s because the principal ingredient begins as a liquid inside a tree in Somalia, or perhaps India, or maybe along Africa’s Gold Coast. Tapped like maple syrup, the sap-like substance is transformed into pea-sized crystalline pieces known as gum olibanum—called frankincense in ancient times, when it was more precious than gold. Hauled down into Saint Mary’s basement in 110-pound burlap bags, gum olibanum by itself is decidedly unappealing. It smells, in fact, like a high-school woodworking shop laced with spilled varnish and turpentine.
But gum olibanum is the perfectly flammable and ideally smoky base for the fragrant oils to come. First, it’s teamed with a dash of powdered gum myrrh and with Ken’s secret weapon—powdered balsam chips—to guarantee that distinctive “High Church sap,” producing what he proudly calls “the dense, hazy billow” that makes our thuribles cloud machines to be reckoned with. Only then is the “gum ollie” ready to become something recognizable as incense with the addition of fragrant oils—anise, cedar balsam, English lavender, coffee, geranium, orange blossom, vanilla, tuberose . . . and more. The possibilities are boggling.
Too boggling, one would think, to be attempted by inexperienced hands—although Ken himself had never seen incense made before he took over the job. The ingredients are powerful, their interaction temperamental, and they cannot be thrown together casually. So Ken blends and blends, a drop of concentrated oil at a time, gradually making scents happen as he stirs his evolving creation in 30-gallon, galvanized “dust bins,” mixing with the only tools deemed sufficiently effective and aristocratic: well-worn English gardening implements. Mix. Sniff. Let mellow. Repeat. The process requires time, patience, a good nose, and physical strength.
The goal is not something that smells merely good, but something that smells right. Researchers, Ken says, have found that smell is the strongest of the senses for triggering memory. So just as the church readings, the vestment colors, and the music all change to remind us where we are in the liturgical calendar, so, occasionally, can the incense. Using admittedly subjective criteria, Ken has been known to create crystals for Palm Sunday that smolder into an aroma that is “buoyant, expectant, anticipatory, and hopeful.” “Use musk,” reads a notation he made to himself one day while mixing Palm Sunday incense. “It’s a friendly, huggy oil.” For Maundy Thursday, one of his blends sought to convey, in his words, “betrayal, a people bereft of hope.” But nothing is absolute. Betrayal this year might not smell quite the same as betrayal next year.
For incense, Ken is certain, is no mere ornament. It is, instead, an integral part of our worship that brings us closer to God. “I’m making a statement about how people perceive the divine mysteries,” he believes. Like many individuals who work alone, Ken writes notes to himself—notes that admonish, remind, warn, or encourage. One of these, his “Basement Credo,” is thriftily typed into the address block of a U.S. Post Office Return-Receipt-Requested card, and kept in a little window envelope hanging from a coat rack in his basement workroom. It explains the point of all that goes on down there in that fragrant room of dust bins, soup cans, bird feeder fillers, English pitchforks and garden weeders, and oils:
“To create the finest incense possible for use by the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. To make use of time, effort, and concern in equal measure so as to contribute a final product serving to help others worship God in the beauty of holiness. To fashion an incense that assists persons to pray through the Mass, and ‘see’ something ordinarily not discernible.
“These are the basement creedal principles,” the note concludes.
What a blessing for us that they are.
John Delves is a cradle Episcopalian, a member of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, and a freelance writer.
Copyright © 2015 by the Free Society of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. All Rights Reserved.