I grew up in a very strongly Protestant environment, where the divide between denominations determined everything from where you shopped, how holidays were celebrated, and, who you could be friends with. Since most Reformed traditions do not use incense, I had no idea incense even existed until I visited an Orthodox church in Jerusalem. Once I discovered it, it became an important part of my spirituality.
The practice of burning incense goes back thousands of years, but for Judaism and Christianity, it has its roots in the Temple in Jerusalem. Incense was so important that when Jesus was born, the Magi brought frankincense, myrrh and gold as birthday presents. (Recent research shows the frankincense would have likely been for Mary in her postpartum healing as well as a gift for Jesus. Myrrh was commonly used in anointing for burials, perhaps an acknowledgment of Jesus’ future on the cross.) Today, incense is used in many churches for liturgical purposes and every major world religion uses incense for rituals and prayer to this day. In some churches, the person who carries the incense whilst it is burning is called a thurifer and carries the incense in a thurible.
There is great research on the benefits of frankincense and other Biblical plants. For more information about healing plants of the Bible, visit Here ).
The writer of the Psalms mentions the use of incense during prayer in Psalm 141:2 “May my prayer be counted as incense before you.” Of course, incense also had practical uses in religious rites- it helped clean the air of unpleasant smells, body odors, and possibly kept away unwanted insects. Research has shown that frankincense can alter brain chemistry to help alleviate symptoms of depressive states.
I used to burn incense everyday, until I lived in a historic building with very sensitive smoke detectors and incense was not allowed to be used. I miss it terribly because it was such an important part of my personal spiritual practice.
So how can incense help with our spiritual practice? In many ways
- It prepares a space and time to reflect and pray, physically and emotionally
- Allowing the incense to fully burn out can act as a ‘timer’, especially if you are building up those spiritual muscles of engaging in longer prayer times
- It can act as a visual aid.
- Looking at the swirls of smoke are relaxing and calming and engage our religious imagination.
- Keeping focused on the incense can help keep focused on the prayer or spiritual practice being used.
- Being enveloped by the smoke is like a sweetly scented embrace
- When you are done, the smell will linger on your clothes and hair, reminding you of the time you have just spent in prayer.
- It engages the senses to help the prayer be an embodied prayer.
A few tips for burning incense
- Never, ever, leave unattended.
- If you live with someone else, make sure it is okay, because not everyone likes the smell
- Use in a well ventilated area
- Do not directly inhale the smoke
- Make sure to use away from smoke detectors
- A little goes a long way
- Use away from paper or other items that could ignite
Kinds of incense.
- I’ve used everything from frankincense, myrrh, Gum Arabic, to Nag Champa cones and sticks (mostly sandalwood)
- Sticks are convenient and easy, without a lot of smoke
- Granules of incense are also lovely, take a bit more time and care to prepare but you decide how much to use. My favorites are from Prinknash Abbey
- For help on how to burn incense, there are lot of great tutorials on Youtube to help you get started. The best way to burn loose incense is in an incense burner and using sand for a longer, more aromatic burn.
Prayer to use with your incense
Holy God, as I light this incense, I am reminded that you are the Light of the world. May this be a time of holy listening, loving and learning. May I remember the sweetness of your love with this aroma and may prayers be as sweet as this scent. Amen.