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 scents and products. Many of the Superiors and hieromonks use fragrant lotions and sanitizers for their hands (i.e. Lavender, Myrrh, Sandalwood, etc.). Some of the simpler pilgrims, after kissing their hand, have assumed this chemical fragrance was a testimony of spiritual sanctity.

Some monasteries wipe the glass covers of the Church icons with myrrh or rose water for the weekend and whenever 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. Situations where these teachings are not out-of-date are when monastics clean the guest houses and start obsessively smelling the guests’ clothing or bedding; when they steal or use a guest’s deodorant, soap, shampoo, or perfume [i.e. using it on themselves when cleaning the guest rooms]. A monastic will get a severe penance and will often be removed from that diakonima for these kind of transgressions. In other cases, such as when a monastic has carnal warfare with some aspect or gender involved with the guest houses, they may be banned from cleaning these areas [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)

Laundry and laundry detergent use, which vary from monastery to monastery, can also cause issues in the monasteries. All the monks at St. Anthony’s Monastery [AZ] 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 among other chores.

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A monastic’s schedule to change their clothes is different in each monastery. A general guideline would be to wear the same socks 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. Monastics generally use neutral shampoos and soaps when showering, though sometimes sweet and strong fragrances are allowed. Monastics are forbidden to take baths because they’re “hedonistic, effeminate and worldy.” Showers are, in theory, supposed to be quick. 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. As with all things, there are always exceptions to the rule.

Deodorant, beauty creams, etc. are forbidden to monastics as is shaving and trimming hair. Monks never shave or trim their hair and beards (in Arizona, some of the African-American monks have been allowed to cut and do things with their hair if it proves unmanageable when long). Nuns also don’t trim their head hair and are forbidden to shave their armpits, legs or facial hair.

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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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CANONS 

7th Ecumenical Synod, Canon 16

Every luxury and adornment of the body is alien to the sacerdotal order. Bishops or clergymen, therefore, who adorn themselves with splendid and conspicuous clothes need to be corrected; but if they insist upon it, they must be condemned to a penance. Likewise as regards those who anoint themselves with perfumes. But inasmuch as a root of bitterness growing up, the heresy of Christianocategori (i.e., accusers of Christians), has become a pestilence, and those who have joined it not only have deemed iconic representations in paintings to be an abomination, but have even rejected every form of reverence, being inclined to loathe those who live decently and piously, and that which has been written has been fulfilled in them, viz., “Godliness is an abomination to a sinner” (Sirach A.28) I’m not sure what the true citation for this verse is. If, therefore, persons are found laughing at those clothed in cheap and decent vestments, let them be corrected with a penance. For ever since the days of old every priestly man has contented himself with moderate and decent vestments. For everything that is worn not because of any real need or necessity, but for embellishment incurs the discredit of being frippery, as Basil the Great has said. But neither did they put on any garments made of silk fabrics and embroidered with various designs; nor did any of them add any differently colored appendages to the edges of their vestments. For they had been told by the Speaker of God’s language that those who wear soft raiment are in the houses of kings (Matt. 11:8).

Quinisext Ecumenical Synod, Canon 27

Let no one on the Clerical List don inappropriate clothing, either when living in the city or when walking the road; but, on the contrary, let him wear costumes that have already been assigned to the use of those who are enrolled in the Clergy. If anyone should commit such a violation, let him be excommunicated for one week.

Synod of Gangra, Canons 12, 21

If any one, under pretence of asceticism, should wear a periboloeum and, as if this gave him righteousness, shall despise those who with piety wear the berus and use other common and customary dress, let him be anathema.

[The βήροι (lacernæ) were the common upper garments worn by men over the tunic; but the περιβόλαια were rough mantles worn by philosophers to show their contempt for all luxury. Socrates (H. E., ii. 43) and the Synodal Letter of Gangra in its third article say that Eustathius of Sebaste wore the philosopher’s mantle. But this canon in no way absolutely rejects a special dress for monks, for it is not the distinctive dress but the proud and superstitious over-estimation of its worth which the Synod here blames].

These things we write, not to cut off those who wish to lead in the Church of God an ascetic life, according to the Scriptures; but those who carry the pretence of asceticism to superciliousness; both exalting themselves above those who live more simply, and introducing novelties contrary to the Scriptures and the ecclesiastical Canons. We do, assuredly, admire virginity accompanied by humility; and we have regard for continence, accompanied by godliness and gravity; and we praise the leaving of worldly occupations, [when it is made] with lowliness of mind; [but at the same time] we honour the holy companionship of marriage, and we do not contemn wealth enjoyed with uprightness and beneficence; and we commend plainness and frugality in apparel, [which is worn] only from attention, [and that] not over-fastidious, to the body; but dissolute and effeminate excess in dress we eschew; and we reverence the houses of God and embrace the assemblies held therein as holy and helpful, not confining religion within the houses, but reverencing every place built in the name of God; and we approve of gathering together in the Church itself for the common profit; and we bless the exceeding charities done by the brethren to the poor, according to the traditions of the Church; and, to sum up in a word, we wish that all things which have been delivered by the Holy Scriptures and the Apostolical traditions, may be observed in the Church.

[This epilogue is lacking in the ancient epitome; and while it occurs after Canon XX. in the versions of Dionysius Exiguus and of Isidore Mercator, it is not numbered as a canon. Moreover in John of Antioch’s Collection and in Photius’s Nomocanon, the number of canons is said to be 20. Only the Greek Scholiasts number it as Canon XXI., but its genuineness is unquestioned].