We made it to San Francisco last night and I will be back in blog mode tomorrow to fill you in on my wild past two weeks. Until then, I’m sharing words from Anna Broadway, one of my first friends in the Bay Area when we moved here three years ago. I’ve always admired her commitment to prayer and I’m happy to share her with you.
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The Smell of Hope
When I think of how I experience the spiritual through my senses, smell is probably near the bottom of the list. I see other followers of God, I hear their voices and my own in worship, I taste the bread and wine of communion, feeling the crumb and cup in my hand before I consume them … but I don’t often breathe in much of a scent during such experiences.
It’s a Protestant problem, I know. Catholic services are notoriously perfumed with the thick, spicy fragrance of incense. The closest I may have ever come to that in the Bible churches of my youth was the piney scent of evergreen sanctuary swags around Christmas time.
Yet perhaps because I registered the scents of those circumstances as either exotic or vaguely nostalgic, smelling seemed to do little for either moment. Admittedly, I don’t have the nose of a bloodhound, but there’s still something sad about one sense being so shut out of my spiritual life.
That has slowly changed through a fairly regular rhythm of weekly prayer walks in my neighborhood. When I first began such nocturnal conversations with God, I called Brooklyn home, and the evening breezes caressed my skin with the humid warmth of summer. For about one glorious week, block after block of my 40-minute walk was redolent with a floral scent I think came from the large trees that lined the street. Then their moment passed, and my nose receded from the prayer-walk action except for the occasional garbage pail or scent of someone doing late-night cooking, laundry or pot-smoking.
It took me a while to re-establish a prayer-walk routine once I moved to California, but I have finally found a long, quiet residential street I like. It has more roses than trees, from what I can tell, and then not all of them have much smell. By now, though, I know pretty well which houses have the best-smelling bushes. I don’t know much about rose seasons, but I can usually smell at least one good flower per prayer walk, pretty much year round.
That has come to matter to me.
One night when I was on the way back, I’d gotten around to praying about a friend for whom I felt a heavy burden. As I passed a house whose large grapefruit trees sometimes drop fruit over the fence onto the sidewalk, a sudden and inexplicable sense of hope came over me that God was going to do something very good in the situation about which I was praying. Breathing in, my nose was filled with the sweet, fleeting scent of orange blossoms, and I remembered.
Years before, while attending college in Arizona, a crush who’d moved away returned for a spring-break visit. When he unexpectedly made plans to meet me for coffee one those nights, I found myself crossing the campus full of a hope that seemed matched by the scent of orange blossoms in the air that week.
Things didn’t turn out as hoped, of course — in the long run — but later that week I experienced God as a loving disrupter of my life in a way that’s never quite been equaled.
Standing beneath a different orange tree years later, however, the two encounters with God suddenly connected as I breathed in. This was the scent of hope.
Though I only smell the orange trees once a year, the many week-to-week scents of my California prayer-walk route have assumed an important role for me. Some weeks I search almost desperately for at least one rose in bloom, one fragrant blossom to remind me that God is good even when hope ebbs so low, my nose is the only way to access it.
I always find at least one fragrant flower.
Anna Broadway is a writer and Web editor living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she is a regular contributor to the Her.meneutics blog and the coffers of various yarn stores. Find her on Twitter @annabroadway.