Incense is used by Christians in many traditions. [It is used by other world faiths as well].

In Anglican history, incense is one of the “six points” of Ritualists, one of the streams that flowed into the catholic renewal of Anglicanism in the nineteenth century: altar candles, vestments, presiding facing East, wafer bread, adding water to the wine, and incense. Most of these are now normal in Anglican practice (excepting presiding facing East – in Anglicanism this was not a reaction against facing the congregation, it was in response to the misunderstanding of an Anglican rubric which had clergy “standing at the North side”, the short side of altars against the East wall, sideways to the people!) And, for some reason, incense is the last and least of the six to be used.

Now, however, at least in the UK, using incense is threatened not by a lurch away from catholic practice but by a Psychoactive Substances Bill in the UK Parliament. It would ban anything capable of “stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system” or which “affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”. Incense used in worship is not in the long list of exemptions.

Religious leaders have contended for millennia that burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists have learned that it is good for our brains too. An international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses… To determine incense’s psychoactive effects, the researchers administered incensole acetate to mice. They found that the compound significantly affected areas in brain areas known to be involved in emotions as well as in nerve circuits that are affected by current anxiety and depression drugs.

Spiritual and religious practices often have a surprisingly down-to-earth foundation, and they regularly connect with scientific understandings of the way we function as a whole person. Making the Sign of the Cross and singing both involve both hemispheres of the brain – enhancing devotion. Incense would have covered the stench of temple sacrifice, and that of the unwashed crowds in religious (and non-religious) events. We may be too quick to allegorise incense as a sign of prayers going up to heaven. Incense may have a much clearer place in devotional life.

What is incense for? For the nose? For the brain?

That is – if it stays legal!

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