The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Smell

What are some negative results of fragrances?

. . . 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, their drinks, their clothes, their mattresses, and so forth. They do not at all 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 effeminated; do not honor the luxury of perfumes."


Here, dear reader, I want to remind you of a bad habit not only among lay people, but also among the clergy and even the bishops. I am referring to the use of that plant called nicotine, which was discovered in some region of North America known as Anthea and which was introduced to Catherine the Queen of France by the Ambassador of Portugal as a sort of miracle of the new world. This is why it was given the exalted name of a "royal plant."

Of course, this is nothing other than what is commonly known as tobacco. I hope, therefore, that you will never imitate those who wrongfully use this tobacco and that you will never privately or before other persons smoke tobacco or place some of it into your nostrils as snuff. First of all, the use of tobacco is contrary to the virtuous way of life. Secondly, it is inappropriate to the high character of the priesthood. Thirdly, it is contrary to good health habits. The habit of smoking is contrary to the virtuous way of life.

The true boundary of virtuous living, according to the teaching of "Galation" [NOTE: a small book published in Florence that was widely accepted in Italy as a moral guide], is trespassed when we do something that may naturally harm the senses or the imagination of noble persons and call forth an abhorrence. Who then cannot see that the use of tobacco crosses over this boundary of virtuous habits and introduces barbarous habits, rustic habits, habits that are abhorrent to those who see and who hear and imagine what is done by those who use tobacco?

Proper behavior requires that a person turn away when cleaning his nose into his handkerchief. The smoke which is inhaled through the nostrils causes the nose to excrete that abhorrent mucus that is then collected in the handkerchief in the presence of others. Proper manners further direct that when a person has to sneeze before others, he must try to block it, if at all possible, or at least to cover it with his handkerchief so that the nose does not bellow like a horn trumpet and cause alarm and abhorrence.

Now, those who would place and stuff into their nose this tobacco powder only vex the organ of smell and bring upon themselves the need to sneeze. A good sneeze usually creates such a violent and terrible shaking of the head that it invokes from people standing by a call for divine intercession with such expressions as these: "Health to you," "Be saved," "May God help you" ("God bless you").

The most terrible thing, however, is for a person to put into his mouth a pipe made from an animal horn or from some type of wood and from that pipe to inhale the smoke of burning tobacco through his larynx and then to exhale that abhorrent smoke through the mouth and the nostrils like some smoking chimney or like the horses of Diomedes, or the bulls of Jason that exhaled fiery smoke through their mouth and nostrils. Can one find a more abhorrent and abominable habit than this?

Smoking is also an inappropriate habit and unbecoming to the spiritual character of the priesthood. The hierarch is a type of God, an icon of Christ Jesus. Therefore all of his habits must be Christlike, solemn, habits that bring not scandals, but benefits to the people. What solemnity is there in the use of that horrible tobacco plant? Or of what benefit is it? On the contrary, what a scandal it is to the pious Christians, when they see their hierarch or priest holding between his teeth that strange-looking object -- the pipe -- in which the tobacco is burning! Indeed, how scandalous it is to see a clergyman exhaling from his nose and mouth that foul-smelling smoke, and to have his house filled with that dark cloud of unpleasant smoke!

The hierarch and all the clergy are obliged by their very nature to exude a spiritual fragrance from all of their senses so that they may transmit this fragrance upon all those who approach them -- Christians as well as unbelievers, as St. Paul wrote: "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (II Corinthians 2:15).

When the clergy draw into their body both through their mouth and their nose that most foul smelling smoke, that many cannot bear and faint, how can they then be, according to the very nature of their calling, an aroma and a fragrance of Christian life for those who are around them? This is the reason why in that most pious Kingdom of Russia there is an untransgressed law that forbids all the orders of clergy and monks from using publicly tobacco through the nose or the mouth. Anyone so doing is considered by all to be a transgressor worthy of aversion.

Finally, the excessive use of tobacco is also harmful to the health of the body. Many who were chronic users of tobacco were found after death to have their lungs blackened and burned, as well as their brain. Inasmuch as the brain receives continuously the inhaled smoke, it consequently uses up not only the excess fluid but also the natural and essential one. Thus, it is difficult to find even one among those who use tobacco regularly who does not admit that its use is more of an evil than a necessity, and who does not condemn himself for using it. Even the moral philosophers, without exception, condemn the regular use of tobacco in public as something abhorrent and boorish. END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 102 - 106