If you have been following my blog, you’ll know that my life is full of herbs. The wonderful gifts that herbs provide include not just their dazzling power to heal and strengthen, but their magnificent beauty. I’m moved to the core whenever I take time to notice the way a plant looks and smells, when I sense the inexorable persistence of its growing, and its willingness to grace my life with its delicate splendor. When you become aware of a plant’s beauty at every level, even the most commonplace interaction between you and the plant feels sacred.
OF GODS AND DEMONS
The ancient Egyptians believed that incense was the sweat of the gods that had fallen to Earth. We associate saints with beautiful fragrances and devils with foul smells. I remember once visiting an onsen—a spa in the mountains of Japan. This is a place of healing where hot sulfurous water pours forth from natural underground wells. I walked down endless corridors before reaching the sulfur pool which was enclosed to make it possible to use even during the icy winter months. I was alone in the small room. The pool sides were encrusted with yellow growths, and sulfurous steam filled the room. As I climbed naked into the streaming water, I felt afraid. That’s how deeply ingrained our sense of uneasiness can be when faced with the overwhelming smell of sulfur, which our culture and our ancestors have always associated with the devil.
FILL YOUR ROOMS WITH BLISS
Use herbs and plants to care for your pets, or to cleanse the space in which you live and work. They help remind us of who we really are, and what is fundamentally important in the desacralized environment in which most of us spend most of our lives. One of the things I most love to do is fill my bedroom with lilies. These are my favorite flowers—but they have to be the white oriental lilies or the marvelous Stargazers, as these are the most scented. Over the years, I’ve come to know lilies well. I know that they give off the greatest amount of fragrance between two and three in the morning. The beauty of their fragrance at this time is so intense that it often wakes me up. Sometimes when this happens, it seems to me that these flowers—so generous with their gifts—are calling to me, asking me to celebrate their wondrous beauty.
The word perfume comes from the Latin per fumum, meaning “through the smoke”. The original way in which fragrance was used in human life was to create a union of divine and mundane reality, not only in the lives of priests, but of ordinary people. Our sense of smell plays a powerful role in rituals. Scent is one of the means by which we create the bridges between the transcendent and the day-to-day. It’s just like if you say a prayer before you eat, the very act of eating nourishes your body and your soul too.
CLEANSE AND SANCTIFY
When you move into a new home, or you feel the need to cleanse or make sacred any space—bedroom, kitchen, workplace, or the whole house—try doing it with the traditional sacred plants first: Desert sage, copal, sweet grass; even dried lavender, thyme and rosemary. I cut back my herb plants three or four times a year, and they love it. It makes them grow stronger and bushier. I then take the cuttings and tie them in small bunches with brightly colored ribbons, and hang them from my kitchen ceiling to dry. Once dry, I can use them for potpourris, sachets, and of course, sanctifying space with their smoke.
Take a bunch of dried herbs and light them over an open metal biscuit tin to catch the sparks, so that they don’t reach the floor. I use a long rectangular tin that once held a bottle of malt whisky for this. I know other people who use baking trays and turkey tins. When the herbs begin to smoke, walk around the space to be sanctified, lifting up the burning plants with the tin beneath them. All the while, ask with your heart and mind that the room be cleansed and dedicated to whatever purpose you intend for it. This could be to make a joyous harmonious space; a space in which creativity can flourish—this is something I love to do—or a space for meditation, sleep, prayer or making love. It is your intention, coupled with the cleansing abilities of the burning plants, that makes it all happen. When you are cleansing and dedicating the desired space, make sure that you offer up the smoke to all corners of the room, and to the six directions—north, south, east, west, above and below. And when you’ve finished, thank the plants for their help. They will hear you and celebrate their own beauty..