Incense, Prayer, and Wool

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Incense, Prayer, and Wool

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One of the most profound sensory experiences I had over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic was the new yet comforting experiences that engaged all the senses of visiting St. Anthony the Great Monestary in Florence, Arizona. My first visit, I stayed for a long weekend. Visitors remaining at the monestary for more than a day are put to work on the grounds, aiding the monks in their daily work. I was put in the kitchen due to my previous experience in a commercial kitchen setting.

The diet at the monastery is remarkably simple; a bean and rice soup, bread, and tangerines grown at the monastery. None of the smells of these foods were new or remarkable to me, but instead this provided an interesting aural experience. The monks pray constantly in everything they do, and kitchen work was no different. Low, repetitive Greek prayers were the only auditory input in the kitchen, aside from the hum of the dishwasher and the clinking of utensils against pots.

Services were held in the early morning, around 3:00am. While making my way from the guests' lodging to the church, I heard a rhythmic wood-on-wood striking, reverberating across the monastery. I saw the source. A monk was striking a wooden board, suspended in the air by two chains, with two wooden mallets. This was essentially the call for the service to start. I later learned from another pilgrim that this practice was adopted by Greeks living in Ottoman-controlled Greece when restrictions on church bells were implemented.

The service itself, too, was a sensory experience unlike any other. Sonorous Byzantine chants, clouds of aromatic incense, all lit by candlelight and a handful of small oil lamps. The sense of touch was also engaged; I felt the wool prayer rope in my hand, each knot a tactile counter for the number of prayers completed. Nearly every sense was full engaged in this temporary and much needed respite from the chaos of the outside world during uncertain times.

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This item was submitted on May 27, 2022 by John Thomas using the form “Share Your Story” on the site “A Journal of the Plague Year”:

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