On Guarding the Sense of Smell (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: When it comes to fragrances, each monastery under Geronda Ephraim has its own particular brand of favorite fragrances and products. Many of the Superiors and hieromonks use fragrant lotions and sanitizers for their hands (i.e. Lavender, Myrrh, Sandalwood, etc.), which some of the simpler pilgrims, after kissing their hand, have assumed the chemical fragrance was a testimony of sanctity. Some monasteries wipe the glass covers of the Church icons with myrrh or rose water for the weekend and when large groups of pilgrims visit. In one monastery, after the ekklesiastiko told the superior that many pilgrims thought the icons were emitting a fragrance and were amazed at the “miracle”, he was instructed not to inform people that he wipes the glass with a fragrance and to deny knowing the source if asked.

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The teachings in this article are somewhat obsolete for the monasteries except in certain cases. The situations where these teachings are not obsolete are when monastics who clean guest houses start obsessively smelling the guests’ clothing or bedding, or if they steal or use a guest’s deodorant, soap, shampoo, or perfume [i.e. they don’t steal the item, but use it on themselves when cleaning the guest rooms]. For those kinds of transgressions a monk or nun will get a severe penance and many times will be removed from that diakonima. In other cases, when a monastic has a carnal warfare with some aspect or gender involved with the guest houses, they may be banned from cleaning those guest houses [i.e. a monk being triggered by feminine odors while cleaning women’s washrooms may only be allowed to clean male guest houses; a nun being triggered by masculine odors while changing bed sheets may only be allowed to clean female guest houses. Monastics who have homosexual or lesbian warfare will be banned from their same gender guest houses].

Guest quarters at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)
Guest quarters at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)

Another area of fragrances in the monasteries, which vary from monastery to monastery, is laundry and laundry detergent. At St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona, all the monks hand wash their own clothing in a bucket or their bathtub (except for Geronda Ephraim who has a cell attendant to wash his clothes in a laundry machine and iron them, etc.). This has caused some people to criticize the monks of St. Anthony’s of being dirty and smelly. Some monasteries follow the hand wash routine, others use washing machines. Some monasteries use neutral, fragrance free Arm & Hammer type detergents while others use fragrant detergents and fragrant fabric softener. Ironing can be done with or without cornstarch spray. Most superiors have a cell attendant who washes and irons their clothing amongst other chores.

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Though changing clothing has different protocols in each monastery, a general guideline would be to wear the same sock and underwear for a few days in a row before using a clean pair. The same with other garments—undershirt, pants, etc. Generally nuns don’t wear bras and there are different allowances during their menstrual cycles. With showering, generally the monastics use neutral shampoos and soaps, though sometimes sweet and strong fragrances are allowed. However, deodorant, beauty creams, etc. are forbidden to monastics as is shaving and trimming hair (beards for the monks, armpits, legs, etc. for the nuns). As an economia, some of the African-American monks in Arizona have been allowed to cut and do things with their hair if it proves unmanageable when long. The protocol varies from monastery to monastery but a full shower can be anywhere from every 7-10 days up to every 40 days. Washing the lower parts can vary as well. Though as a rule, monks and nuns wear undergarments when they shower so they do not have to look at their genitals and be incited into a carnal warfare. baths are forbidden to monastics as they are “effeminate and worldy,” though some monastics will periodically take a bath if sick or for other “health benefits.” As with all things, there are always exceptions to the rule.

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The following article is excerpted from The Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 101-103, On Guarding the Sense of Smell:

A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels (Softcover)

What Are Some Negative Results of Fragrances

The third sense in line is that of smell, and this too must be guarded and kept pure. For example, one must not be carried away by the fragrances of myrrhs and perfumes, for they not only weaken the manly character of the soul and give it an effeminate air, they also may incite the soul toward fornications and moral licentiousness. It is already well established that the external assaults upon the senses bring about a corresponding tendency and change in the body, and by the same token the changes in the body affect corresponding changes in the soul. Veros the eparch of Sicily, who in his character and behavior resembled a wild boar, confirms this fact. For as he was given up to the fragrances, he was also similarly given up to licentiousness. We read about this person in the history books that he was no eparch, but rather a slave to hedonistic pleasures. In fact he was so enslaved to the fragrance of roses that he never wanted to be without them. To achieve this he devised a net filled with roses to be placed before him at all times so that he could readily and continuously smell that captivating fragrance. Something similar is done by those who keep horses when they suspend bags filled with barley before them. Much like these dumb animals then, the hopeless eparch walked the streets of Sicily like another boar of May. The truly very refined fragrance of roses harmonized very badly with the nostrils of such a vile and foul-smelling animal.

Marcus Aurelius Antonius was one of the most debauched of all the Roman emperors.
Marcus Aurelius Antonius was one of the most debauched of all the Roman emperors.

This foolish and senseless habit of Veros was outdone by Marcus Aurelius, who was so immersed in the habit of pleasing his senses that he would literally fill up a pool of rose water and would swim in it with joy and pleasure. Moreover, he also had the habit of using the most precious and sweet-smelling myrrh in his lamps so that as they burned he would again be pleased by their fragrance. The hedonistic desire to please the sense of smell can reach such bizarre foolishness. Not far from this particular foolishness is also the habit of those who attempt to please all their senses through the use of fragrances in general. They like to add fragrant substances to everything—their foods, drinks, their clothes, mattresses, and so forth. They do not realize, the poor souls, that this living body of ours is a veritable container of smells, but after death it becomes food for worms and foul smelling. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: “Do not allow your sense of smell to be effeminate; do not honor the luxury of perfumes.”

WA St John's Soap

What Experience Is Gained by Those Who Use the Fragrances

The Prophet Amos leveled a very severe criticism against those who were using such fragrances: “Woe to those…who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (6:6). The Prophet Isaiah also pronounced a curse upon the prominent daughters of Zion who were haughty and who dressed themselves with fine clothing and anointed themselves with a variety of precious perfumes: “The Lord will smite…the heads of the daughters of Zion…Instead of perfumes there will be rottenness…and instead of a rich robe, a girding of sack cloth; instead of beauty, shame” (3:17f.). Wanting to avoid this curse, the great St. Arsenios trained himself to endure humbly even the foul smell. He would never change the water in which he soaked the palms of date tress and the young shoots which he braided into baskets, so that after a long time the water became very foul smelling. When asked why he did this, he answered that with this rule he wanted to repay for all the myrrh and perfumes which he had enjoyed in the world and among the kingdoms. See also the 16th Canon of the 7th Ecumenical Council which decreed that bishops and clergy who use perfumes must correct this improper habit. However, if they persist in using perfumes, they must be given a penance.

Prophet Amos

If you really want your body, my brother, to be fragrant and to exude a pleasant odor, do not remain idle. Do each day 50 or even 100 prostrations and as many reverences as you can. Naturally the activity of the body creates heat, which evaporates certain unnecessary liquids of the body and digests others and thereby makes the body thin. It is these liquids of the body and digests others and thereby makes the body thin. It is these liquids of the body that produce the heavy and unpleasant odor of the body. So when the body is dried out and made thin, it becomes more vital, well-managed, and consequently pleasant smelling. According to natural scientists, dryness is the most effective way to produce a pleasant odor. This is why, as we have read in history books, the body of King Alexander had a pleasant odor because of the natural dryness and warmth which it possessed. Similarly fragrant was the body of the wise Ioannis Tzetzos and of all his generation, as he himself wrote in his commentary to the poet Hesiod. This is again the reason why the bodies of virtually all the craftsmen and laborers and especially of the ascetic monks do not exude any heavy odor, but rather exude a pleasant and fragrant odor. St. Isaac also wrote about this and said: “The odor of an anchorite [an ascetic monk living all alone] is most sweet, and to encounter him brings joy to the heart of those who have discernment.”

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