Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chrism: Perfume for the Soul

St. Joseph’s Abbey is a monastery located in Spencer, Massachusetts. The monks who live within the walls of the abbey are renowned for their delicious Trappist Preserves, but they are also involved in the creation of Chrism, a fragrant anointing oil used in rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. The aroma of Chrism possesses indescribable beauty and is truly a perfume for the soul.

The Holy Rood Guild, a part of St. Joseph’s Abbey, has been producing Chrism for over 30 years. The formula for the anointing oil is as secret as the identity of the Chrism maker; a single monk in charge of meeting the Chrism needs for half of the Roman Catholic Dioceses in the United States. Mysterious ways are common among monks and nuns involved in the manufacture of products that sustain the livelihood of their religious order. For example, knowledge of the formula for Bénédictine liqueur, an aromatic elixir that includes at least 27 herbs and spices, is possessed by only three monks at a given time. Similarly, the formula for Chartreuse is kept by two Carthusian monks.

"Our recipe for Chrism is not made public because it was developed here by the monks over a period of time," says Brother Emmanuel, a monk at St. Joseph's Abbey for over 26 years. "They are proud of it and would not like to see it copied by a for-profit company."

Brother Emmanuel’s explanation is similar to the unspoken sentiments of fragrance manufacturers who keep their perfume formulas locked inside protected vaults despite the fact that nearly any fragrance can be copied with 75% accuracy using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. When it comes to Chrism there is a distinct difference regarding fragrance philosophy; perfume is worn for pleasure whereas Chrism is used to anoint an individual with the Holy Spirit, a transcendent act devoid of vanity and attachment to the material world.

The scent of Chrism is sweet, spicy, woody and balsamic. It is difficult to ferret out the ingredients by smell alone, but Patchouli is definitely a base note in the formula. Like Frankincense, inhalation of Chrism steadies the breath and makes it more expansive (especially when smelled before the ritual addition of olive oil). One can feel what the monks intended to create at first sniff; it is as if everything in the physical world loses its power to distract one from the inner voice of the soul. Fragrance lovers who are fond of single raw materials understand this effect, which has nothing to do with manipulation and everything to do with the unique character of each aromatic ingredient.

The best way to experience the aroma of Chrism in the Roman Catholic Church is at the Chrism Mass, which takes place every year on Holy Thursday during Holy Week (the week before Easter). The Sacred Chrism is consecrated by a Bishop who breathes over the Chrism as part of the ritual; an act which pays homage to Christ’s breathing the Holy Spirit over the Apostles after his resurrection. There are three oils made at the Chrism Mass; Sacred Chrism, Oil of the Infirm (for the sick) and Oil of the Catechumens (for Baptism). Different blessings are recited for each. Once the oils are blessed, they are distributed to churches in the diocese and are used in baptisms, confirmations, ordinations of clergy, blessings of new/existing church buildings, and at the bedside of the sick and dying.

The connection between the ritual of anointing and the breath of life is enthusiastically articulated by the Very Reverend Archimandrite Paul Menevisoglu in The Holy Myrrhon in the Eastern Orthodox Church, (published in 1972 by the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies in Thessaloniki). “In the first breathing, God filled Adam with the breath of life. In the second breathing, our Lord Jesus Christ filled His Disciples with the Divine Breath of God—the Holy Spirit Himself! Through this miraculous in-breathing, Jesus showed that He is the Source of Eternal Life and the Mediator of the Holy Spirit to the world.”

Chrism is known as Holy Myrrhon in the Greek Orthodox tradition, and Holy Muron/Myron in the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church. Eastern Orthodox churches make their holy anointing oil during Holy Week. Unlike Chrism, Holy Myrrhon is not made on a yearly basis. Its creation is consecrated by a Patriarch (or a Bishop appointed by him). There have been nine consecrations of Holy Myrrhon in the last 100 years, the last two of which were performed by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in 1992 and 2002.

The origin of the word Myrrhon comes from the word myrrh, which refers to the raw material and/or a fragrant oil that is the essence of a plant. According to Brother Emmanuel, Holy Myrrhon “... is far more complex than our [Chrism] and has a long ritual for mixing that takes several days.” Holy Myrrhon is more gourmand in character than Chrism, revealing an aroma that resembles exotic spiced doughnuts. Reverend Father Mark Arey’s translation of The Holy Myrrhon in the Eastern Orthodox Church includes the 57 ingredients used to make the anointing oil. The formula, which is Mediterranean in origin, includes:

1. pure olive oil
2. red wine
3. flower extract
4. rose extract
5. pure mastic
6. almond resin
7. primula flowers
8. aloe of Barbades
9. pepper (long)
10. nutmeg
11. malabathrum
12. angelica herb
13. extract of styrax
14. pure myrrh
15. pepper (black)
16. fragrant snap ring
17. balsam resin
18. sweet calamus
19. Florentine lily
20. saffron
21. aristoloche
22. fruit of the balsam tree
23. cyperus rotundus
24. sweet bay
25. Celtic nard (valerian)
26. black cassia
27. pressed nut oil
28. cardamom
29. clove
30. cinnamon
31. wild nard
32. fragrant mace
33. Venetian terebinth
34. white resin
35. pure nut oil
36. marjoram
37. ladanum
38. Indian nard
39. incense of Lebanon
40. white ginger (of Ceylon)
41. zerneb
42. fenugreek
43. helenium

After the above have been boiled and mixed, then is added:

44. oil cinnamon of Ceylon
45. oil of clove
46. congealed oil of nutmeg
47. balsam of Mecca
48. rose oil
49. mace oil
50. lemon oil
51. oil of balsam fruit
52. oil of marjoram
53. oil of bay-tree
54. oil of rosemary
55. oil of lavender
56. Indian musk
57. true amber

The original formula for anointing oil was given to Moses in Exodus 30:22-30.33 and contains five ingredients; myrrh, cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia, and olive oil. The instructions come with a caveat; the formula is never to be used outside its religious context as this would violate the sanctity of the anointing ritual. Though Chrism and Holy Myrrhon are inspired by the same biblical tract, history, belief and culture have uniquely shaped formulations used by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. These differences leave room for further exploration of the religious use of aroma, an expression of the soulful essence of humankind.

Special Thanks & Notes:

Holy Spirit is known by other names in different religious traditions. Those familiar with Hinduism know it as prana, the "life force" related to in-breathing. No matter what your religious beliefs are, or are not, there is no denying that without breath life cannot exist. When seen from this perspective, one can ecumenically embrace all belief systems for what they symbolize best; the oneness of humankind.

Brother Emmanuel is a monk of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. The Order follows the rule of St. Benedict and is committed to seeking God in solitude, silence and manual work. For Brother Emmanuel, "...the monastic life is a journey of self-knowledge. We cannot know God unless we first know ourselves."

Reverend Father Mark Arey is the Director of Inter-Orthodox & Ecumenical Relations at The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in New York City. He has generously provided the English translation of the formula for Holy Myrrhon. Reverend Father Mark Arey's profound intellect is matched by a refreshing generosity of spirit that smashes stereotypical notions of rigidity and narrow-minded thinking one may occasionally find in organized religion.

Special thanks to Dr. Santina DiLuoffo, a Glass Petal Smoke reader who planted the seed for this story in March of 2008. This article would not be possible without the assistance of Karen Doherty, a fan of the blog who digitally introduced Glass Petal Smoke to Father Robert J. Robbins, Director of the Commission for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, and Pastor of Church of the Holy Family at The United Nations Parish.

Photo of Chrismatory Set from Catholic Church Supply.

Photo of a Bishop breathing into Chrism oil is from Whispers in the Logia.

Photo of His Holiness Karekin II pouring ingredients into Holy Muron is from the Mother See of Holy Etchimadzin website. His Holiness Karekin II is head of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenian recipe for Holy Muron includes 48 ingredients and is made every seven years.

New York City is Home to St. Vartan Cathedral, a landmark Armenian institution located at 630 Second Avenue, on the corner of 34th Street. It is an incredibly beautiful building; inside and out.