The nose knows: The power of scent and memory

By Fr. John Girotti | For The Compass | February 6, 2020

Recently I received a telephone call from a dear friend of mine. She and her husband had been very good to me when I was their pastor and I have stayed in contact with them over the years. Now her husband was dying and she called to ask if I would come to the hospice where he was resting and celebrate the last sacraments with him. I told her I was on my way.

Arriving at the hospice I parked my car and walked quickly towards the front door. Immediately upon entering the building I was struck by a smell. That smell! I was suddenly overwhelmed with memories. You see, in my haste to bring the sacraments to my dying friend, I had forgotten that this was the very place where my mother had died many years before — this hospice, in this building, in the room across the hall from my friend. How could I have forgotten? The smell reminded me!

The scent was not particularly foul — in all actuality it was probably the carpeting and building materials that were giving off the odor. But the smell immediately brought me back to those days in early 2011 when Mom was here.

The nose knows. Our sense of smell is one of the most powerful ways by which we remember. And memories give us a firm foundation of where we have been and how and why we have arrived where we are today. Strangely and wonderfully, smells usually trigger these memories. A favorite perfume, freshly baked cookies from the oven, a wool sweater packed in moth balls, or candles burning silently in the back of church; these are all smells that bring back powerful memories. Most of us have experienced this emotional phenomenon. And we need to pay close attention to it.

Today we live in a time and society that is resistant to memories. It is seemingly a most regrettable American trait that makes us prone to tearing down and throwing away the old and replacing it with something uglier and cheaper. In today’s society, we no longer mend or fix things — we throw them away and go out and buy new ones, usually made in China with “pride.” And it should come as no surprise that we are often resistant to learning about history — we find it boring and old fashioned. We do not like to be presented with the wisdom of a previous age — we sneer at those people who were so backwards back then. A failure to know history means that we are doomed to repeat it. And repeat it we will — in real time, today. The past matters. Memories are important.

But the nose still knows. Our brains might become distracted, but the nose knows memories. It cannot be fooled. Memories come flooding back, often without warning, which remind us of where we have been. Yes, our ears are often filled with much noise today. Sadly, our eyes are constantly focused on screens and other bright and shiny objects. But I wonder if God might use our sense of smell to reach us? Yes, I believe he does!

The sense of smell, with its powerful ability to trigger our memories, is a way by which we can remember what God has done for us and how he has sustained us through the hills and valleys of life. This is the subtle grace of scent and memory. God is very near here. Be attentive to his presence.

When I had driven to the hospice to visit my dying friend, it had been yet another busy, frantic day. No time to remember and very little time to think. Same as it ever was. And then the smell of the place where my mother had died and where my friend was now dying immediately put everything in perspective for me.

My eyes could not see it. And my ears were closed. But the nose knows! And through the power of scent and memory, God set things aright in my life. As I celebrated the last sacraments with my friend, I was so consoled in knowing that I had been this way before. I now remembered how the story goes. And it has a happy ending.

Fr. Girotti, vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay, has just released a new DVD series, “Live Your Faith.” It is available through the Families & Schools of Discipleship Mission Team, [email protected].

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