This past Sunday, my church celebrated All Saints Day. To be more specific, we held a Solemn Holy Eucharist for the Feast of All Saints. It was a very "high church" service -- possibly the most I've ever experienced. There was incense, pretty much the whole service was chanted, and it was really, really beautiful all the way around. Of course, I'm into that stuff -- worship that feels like worship of the God of the universe.
On my way home, I got a call saying that a certain 6-month-old loved one was being taken to the pediatric ER at UNC Hospitals. The baby was diagnosed with an easily treated pneumonia and (a long wait later) she was admitted to the hospital for an anticipated couple of overnights for observation. As we talked through logistics, it became obvious that I needed to stay the first night with the mom and baby. We settled in, another family member brought some provisions, and we proceeded to do the best we could to take care of ourselves and the miserable but still feisty little one.
After a long night came a bright morning with good news, and I came back home to my own little one. I was exhausted, and he is still recovering from the time change, meaning nap time wasn't too far away. We piled onto my bed and had a transcendent time of giggling, tickling, dancing, and generally enjoying each other's company to the likes of Abba, Boston, and other music I'd loaded on my recently rediscovered college ipod. After having a tough, very full day of trying not to ask myself what I would do if it were Gabriel being hospitalized, it was restorative to have that kind of connection time with my boy. As we goofed off, I kept getting whiffs of something musky and sweet.
It took a while for me to figure out what was going on. But it turns out that in my haste to get to the hospital, I had just tossed my church clothes onto the (unmade) bed, and these clothes still smelled of the church incense. Every time we moved the covers, a new bit of fragrance rose up.
The sermon yesterday talked about thin places, and how sometimes people can be thin places for each other: when we do something that brings someone face to face with God, we can become a thin place. I'm not really on board with this concept -- I think a thin place is a place, after all, and one that offers a consistent and repeated experience of closeness to the divine (as opposed to a one-time event). But there are very real moments when God, maybe through the Holy Spirit, finds us. Maybe it's in a place. Maybe it's through a memory. Maybe it's a conversation with or an act by someone else. And in those moments, we are within arm's reach of God, being touched and ministered to and reached, maybe even healed.
I don't know the theological reasons for having incense at church when there's something death-related to be reminded of, but it seems to be a theme. But there's something about a solemn remembrance of those who have gone before that, of course, reminds me of my own mortality. And thanks to a full year at this church with its reverence its tradition and its deeply moving prayers, my sensory links between and among remembrance and incense and worship are now well-formed.
So as I sat there on my bed with my happy toddler, after a long hospital night caring for a sick baby and her very tired mama, getting lost in my own fight against some very vivid "what if" fears of my own, I kept catching this fragrance -- of hope, of death, of worship, maybe even of God. And in those moments, God found me.