Holy Smoke! How and Why Incense is Used in Religion and Spirituality
(The 3-Minute Weekly Insight from Spirituality U.)
According to the adoremus.org web site, “The word ‘incense’ is derived from the Latin incendere, which means “to burn.” Incense is commonly used as a noun to describe aromatic matter that releases fragrant smoke when ignited, to describe the smoke itself, and as a verb to describe the process of distributing the smoke.
The burning of incense is used in a variety of religions (and also in secular settings) as a symbolic sacrificial offering to a deity, as a form of prayer, and as a way of invoking emotions and attitudes. Incense is sometimes called the “Food of the gods,” reflecting the idea that it was a gift from the gods in primordial times, and that lighting incense is a way of not only honoring the holy ones but also of nourishing them.
Moreover, in recent decades the use of incense has spread beyond strictly religious contexts and into spiritual and even non-spiritual settings where, according to S. Brent Plate, it is used for “purification, protection, healing, memory, the marking of time and even the visual creation of space.’
The reason why incense holds such a powerful place in our spiritual lives may relate to the way our sense of smell connects to our brain and thus our consciousness. According to Plate in his book, A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, our olfactory (smelling) system is plugged directly into the place in our brains where memories are stored and emotions are processed. He adds, “Smell touches our species’ deep desires and fears.”
The use of incense in a religious context dates back to the third millennium BCE. Religious folks in China and other parts of the Far East began using incense at about the same time.
These days incense is used in religious rituals by Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans and especially Christians in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican (Episcopal in the US) faiths. It is not typically used by mainstream Protestant or Evangelical Christian denominations. Nor is it typically used in worship by Jews or Muslims.
The way incense is used in Western Catholic and Eastern Christian traditions can provide a powerful model for the symbolic use of fragrant smoke. First, in these traditions incense is used to represent the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven. Second, according to adoremus.org, “Incense is a sacramental [something that is designed to enhance devotion] used to venerate, bless, and sanctify. [Third], its smoke conveys a sense of mystery and awe.”
In Roman Catholic practice, incense can be used at the beginning of Mass or another important ritual as a method of purifying and honoring items and persons involved in the spiritual activity. In this “censing” process, incense is placed in a special burner called a “thurible” and then lit. The thurible typically hangs at the end of a chain and the person performing the ritual (or a religious deputy) swings the thurible sending aromatic smoke toward the altar, the congregation, and religious leaders.
For more information about the religious and spiritual uses of incense visit: