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In Montréal, you can trace the arrival of immigrant groups by walking north along Rue St. Laurent from the port. An immigrant arrives, trudges past previous groups until he finds virgin territory, and there he opens a restaurant with home cooking. Other people from the old country arrive, trek up the hill past alien smells, and move into apartments on a street that smells right, just like their childhood homes. You walk through the garlic of the Vieille Cité, the soy sauce of Chinatown, the peanut sauce of Little Thailand, the taramasalata of Greece, ever northward, until you are brought up short by the newest colony, Little Haiti, which smells of—well, only the foolish look closely into the cooking of a culture that invented zombies.
Human beings live in a world of smells that is boring by dog standards, but it is still powerful enough to awaken deep memories. Proust tasted—and therefore mostly smelled—tea and madeleines, and brought his past to life. Hot rice pudding or a coal stove restores my grandmother’s kitchen; diesel fuel or sour milk returns me to hurried breakfasts in a school cafeteria after First Friday Mass. A newly mown meadow or pine trees bring back summers with long-dead parents; sea mist or mildew rebuilds beach houses that long ago succumbed to the waves. Lilac blossoms or pizza restores a first love; a swamp or napalm revives comrades whose faces have been forgotten.
An odor of sanctity has emanated from many holy people. (St. Benedict Labré, the patron saint of bums, had a different smell; his confessor couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him.) The bride in the Song of Solomon ran after the myrrh and spikenard of the bridegroom; the blind Isaac thought he recognized Esau by the earthy smell of his garments; and the temple was dominated by the smells of incense, burning meat—and blood. It was a sacred slaughterhouse and barbecue pit—the sacrifices of incense had a practical as well as a symbolic purpose. In heaven, the elders offer their golden bowls full of incense, which is the prayer of the saints.
Byzantine theology, following Origen, claims that Christians have spiritual senses that correspond to their natural senses. The body of the Christian can perceive with these new senses the spiritual world—which is not abstract, but more real, more concrete, than the fallen world. The icons are bathed in the light of Tabor, the Uncreated Light that the apostles saw at the Transfiguration. And Christians can sometimes detect the odor of roses that bloom in no earthly soil.
We are doubly exiles, from Paradise and from heaven. We know that we have lost something, and we feel that childhood is the way back to our real home. When soldiers lie dying, they cry out for their mothers, who brought them into the world. But there is no way back to Paradise; an angel with a flaming sword stands guard against any attempt to return to the past.
The way home lies in the future, which is why Christians can feel nostalgia for the heaven they have never seen. That home has smells that sometimes drift out into the present—the bouquet of the Wine, the scent of the fruit of the Tree of Life, the aroma of the wedding banquet of the Lamb—that lure us into a remembrance of things to come even when we are trying to forget.