Monday, June 10, 2019

Smoke - Part 2

In my last post I talked about the "theory" behind incense, giving some historical background and biblical texts. Now I'm going to get onto the practical side of things. I will assume that you are total novices when it comes to using incense and hopefully there will be something to help most people. 

Firstly, before using incense in church at all, you have to think about the building itself. How large is it, and most importantly, where are the fire alarms? Can you isolate any of the smoke detectors? Or are they going to start screeching the minute you fire up the incense? If you do have to switch them off, make sure you have some alternative arrangements in place for fire detection and evacuation. Stay safe!

Next you will need something to burn your incense in. I know of four choices here...

1 - You may have access to a church thurible (incense burner). Alternatively you may not have one, but would like to make one.
2 -  A simple thurible can be made using an old sweetcorn or fruit tin, punching some holes in it, and adding chain from a hardware store. You can generally do this for less than a fiver! Make sure you punch holes near the bottom of the tin for better air circulation. 
3 - You can use a bowl or tin filled with sand, which can be stood on a pedestal of some kind, preferably somewhere where it cannot be knocked over, for example in a church sanctuary area. 
4 - You may have a small domestic incense burner or Orthodox hand censer. These may be a little small for church use so I would recommend solutions 1-3. 

Thirdly you will need something to burn; charcoal and incense. 

Charcoal can be purchased from a church supplies shop. I don't recommend barbecue charcoal because the grains of incense will fall off, but some types of shisha charcoal can be used. Basically you need charcoal with dent in the top so you have somewhere to place the incense. 

Some of these charcoal discs are swift-lighting which can be helpful, but it isn't all that important to get swift lighting as long as you have access to a small cook's blowtorch. (More about that later!)

When it comes to choosing the incense you have an awful lot of choice. I used to use Prinknash incense. Basilica is a popular flavour used in many churches, which smells like hot cross buns. However it can be harder to get the mix right and prevent the smoke going acrid over the duration of the service. Other people swear by the strong floral aroma of Rosa Mystica, made by the monks of Alton Abbey.  I am particularly fond of Orthodox incense blends these days which generally use slightly larger grains and which come in many floral scents and also some more spicey scents. A few years ago I had a lovely one called "Holy night", Nard is also very lovely and symbolic, Amber and Mount Athos incenses are fabulous, and I often use Myrrh incense on Holy Saturday.

Incense in a bowl

First I will talk about using incense in a bowl. The same principles can be used for domestic incense burners. Firstly, do make sure that your bowl is filled with sand. The charcoal discs can get much hotter than you realise, especially as they can still look black whilst being hot enough to burn. Beware! To be extra-safe place your bowl upon a non-burning surface such as an tile. Sometimes a charcoal disc will look like it hasn't caught light but it is quietly burning away inside. DO NOT TOUCH the lit charcoal with bare hands. Instead use a small pair of tongs (like sugar tongs) or tweezers or a pair of teaspoons. Place two or three discs on the sand in the bowl, well spaced apart.(Remember that the more charcoal you use the more charcoal smoke there will be . Charcoal smoke is rather unpleasant and you will want to maximize the nice scent of the incense and minimize the charcoal smell.) Light the charcoal. You will then need to wait for the charcoal to glow red. You can blow on the charcoal to help it glow quicker, but beware of sparks which may fly out and burn you. It is much safer to use a small battery operated fan or even better a cooks blowtorch which can make the incense glow red very quickly indeed.

When the charcoal is red you can add the incense. Remember that only the incense which is in contact with the charcoal will actually melt and release perfume. Do not smother the charcoal by adding too much incense or it will go out. Spoon the incense carefully onto the charcoal and, if it is your tradition, ask a priest to bless it. From time to time, scrape away the "spent" incense and add new stuff. Spent incense can be acrid if left on the charcoal. 

A top tip for a quick cloud of smoke to appear is to grind some of the incense in a pestle and mortar (just like a cooks pestle and mortar). This is pretty much always necessary with Orthodox incense which has larger grains.  The smaller the grains, the more quickly it will melt and you will get a wonderful cloud of smoke, but it will also disappear quickly. 

When you are finished be very careful where you dispose of the spent charcoal. It is best dealt with outside. Do not ever place in a bin inside the building. 

Incense in a thurible (censer).

Thuribles come in a number of shapes and sizes. They are often made of brass or silver. Orthodox thuribles have twelve bells on them which represent the voices of the twelve apostles. 
here is a lovely image of a thurible and incense boat from the ceiling of a church in Rome

When dealing with thuribles please be aware that the chains can very easily become entangled, and, like a ball of string they can be tricky to untangle again! I tend to store mine by tying the chains together at 3 or 4 points along their length with large twist ties to keep them from tangling. A thurible stand is a very useful thing to hang the thurible from when in church. If you do not have one, a microphone stand can make a good temporary substitute. 

Do keep you thurible clean. The lid can often become filled with a tar like substance that can give off nasty smelling smoke when it gets hot. Don't allow it to get dirty and give it a good scrub with cleaner after use (once it has cooled down). To make the task of cleaning the inside of a thurible easier I always use a small metal pie tin inside the bowl of the censer. This can then be scrunched up and thrown away in an outside bin after use, making cleaning much easier. 

Unlike the incense bowl you do not need sand in a thurible. If you did use sand if would very quickly spill everywhere! Thuribles are meant to be swung  and used in processions or swung and aimed at an altar, or a gospel book, or your congregation. Because of this do check your chains and make sure they are firmly attached before use. A pair of snipe nosed pliers can easily fix any loose connections. 

When you come to light the charcoal, you can light it using tongs from a small candle (the traditional way) or simply blast it with a cooks blowtorch. The quick way! (An added plus point is that you can use the blowtorch to make creme brulee when you're not using it for incense. Giving the thurible good strong swings can get the charcoal to glow more quickly and you can use the portable fan to help you if required. When the charcoal is glowing red you are ready for the incense to be added. In a liturgical situation you would normally offer the incense boat to a priest who would add three spoonfuls (sometimes making a lovely little cross with the spoon) and pray a prayer of blessing either silently by making a cross over the incense or aloud eg. "Be blessed by Thou in whose honour thou shalt be burnt in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen."   As with the incense in a bowl it is important to make sure the charcoals are placed so that their "bowl" is on top, and that the incense is placed on top of that bowl. Any incense not in contact with the charcoal will not melt and is simply wasted. Do not put too much charcoal in the thurible at any one time or you will simply get the smell of the charcoal smoke. More can easily be added later. Getting the balance right will result in better perfume and less acrid smoke. Another tip for keeping the smoke smelling sweet is to regularly clear away the spent incense, but do not simply scrape it to one side with a spoon, scrape it out of the thurible altogether and place in a small metal dish. That way the smoke will keep smelling lovely and sweet.  Please also be aware that after a while the thurible itself can get hot, especially the lid, as heat rises. Take care not to burn your fingers on the lid. 

If your church does not use incense liturgically there may be times when it may be appropriate to cense the space before an act of worship. This can create an atmosphere of prayer, but is also easier on those occasions when the smoke bothers people. It has been noted in some churches which have a large number of tourists, that the atmosphere is quieter and more prayerful when the building smells of incense. 

There are many wonderful videos for clergy on youtube showing you how to cense an altar or a gospel book. Here are some links to some of them. 

There are a number of ways of doing this so do not feel that any one is "correct" although some churches do have a "house style" which it would be polite to follow!

Please note that if the altar is free-standing the priest should walk around and cense the altar in an anticlockwise direction. 
This is the same for coffins if you need to cense a coffin at a funeral. With other items, or if you wish to use a more simple technique then two swings to the middle of the item (eg. a gospel book) two to the left and two to the right can be a default for most situations! 

I do hope that this short tutorial helps and enables you and others to enjoy the use of incense in worship and reassures you that it can be used without the congregation being choked by clouds of charcoal smoke. 

1 comment:

merrymike said...

I have a few other observations.
The primary result of using incense should be the fragrance, not the smokiness. Often when the thurible is used long enough to visibly smoke up the space, what is burning at that point is primarily the charcoal which has an acridness that's unpleasant. Made worse by using "self-lighting" charcoal because of the chemicals used in it to make it light more easily.

Most incense blends have a pronounced "perfumey" scent before burning. In most, if not all, cases that comes from spices and perfumes that when burned make a less pleasant smell. I have found that pure frankincense (which has almost no fragrance before it's burned give great fragrance when burning and people who have breathng problems say it affects them less if at all.

There are now electric thuribles. I have not used one but have heard that because they use no charcoal, the incense smoke they produce is non-irritating.