The scent of flowers

A few days ago, the vicar of my church helpfully sent me a booklet of daily meditations for Holy Week and a palm cross. Inevitably, coronavirus is a theme, and it seems appropriate: after all, the virus is so named because it resembles a "crown of thorns".  The meditation for Palm Sunday highlights Pilate's symbolic washing of his hands, absolving himself of any responsibility for the death of another, and asks how we feel about our own virus-induced hand washing ritual:
How do you feel when you wash your hands, in the present time?
Do you pray, sing or count as you wash?
How does this influence the way you feel, as a Christian?
How can this simple act, often done in our homes in isolation, be seen as an act of service?
As I read these questions, I thought of the men I saw on Twitter moaning about their ravaged hands, unaccustomed to water and detergents. I wanted to remind them of the famous washing up liquid advert: "For hands that do dishes to be soft as your face, use mild green Fairy Liquid". But it's not washing up liquid that you need to soothe dry and inflamed hands, it is hand cream. Women have known for centuries that hands constantly exposed to soap and water need and deserve tender loving care. Men who previously bewailed the amount their wives spent on hand cream are suddenly desperate for emollients to soothe their sore, roughened hands. Protecting others from illness and death is a costly business, in more ways than one.

So the Gospel reading for Monday seemed to follow on perfectly from Palm Sunday's celebration of hand washing. It is the story of Mary anointing Jesus's feet with precious perfume (John 12:1-11):
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus's feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
In Jesus's time, washing and anointing the feet of an honoured guest whose feet were sore and dirty from the journey was an act of service, just as our hand washing now is an act of service to those who need protecting from a virus. Mary's "pure nard" was her equivalent of an exceedingly expensive hand cream, willingly donated to soothe another's ravaged feet.

But the meditation went on to describe the wonderful smells in Mary's home that day:
Martha had served dinner, so the room must have been filled with the aromas of freshly baked bread, and roast lamb or goat, cooked over a smouldering fire.....Then the room filled with a scent so intense, so luxurious and gorgeous that it smothered all else..."
And suddenly I saw this story in a completely different way.

I have been ill over the last three weeks with what I suspect was CV-19. Losing your sense of smell is a known symptom. My sense of smell vanished over two weeks ago, along with much of my sense of taste (since smell and taste are linked.) It has not yet returned.

I didn't immediately realise my sense of smell had gone. My symptoms were otherwise mild - aches and pains, a bit of a cough, breathlessness, chills, and above all, crippling fatigue. On the day that I discovered my sense of smell had disappeared, I had put the remains of a roast chicken into a pot to boil up for stock. Exhausted by this, I fell asleep on the sofa. I never smelt the bones boiling dry.

When I woke up, I rescued the stock. That's when I realised I couldn't smell or taste anything. I had no idea what the stock tasted like, but I made a chicken and mushroom casserole with it anyway. I stuck the casserole in the oven and, shattered, fell asleep on the sofa again. Several hours later I woke up and removed a very overcooked casserole from the oven. I tried to eat some, but it was like eating cardboard and rubber. I gave up rather quickly.

I had never before realised how much I relied on my senses of smell and taste. Without them, cooking was a guessing game, and eating was downright unpleasant. I couldn't eat much for most of the next two weeks.

The fatigue, chills and breathlessness have now gone, and food no longer tastes unpleasant. But I still have little sense of smell. So when I read this, I was struck by a terrible sense of loss:
"Hunt your home for the most beautiful scent you can find (perfume or aftershave poured on to a cotton pad or tissue: a flower, maybe even food) and place it beside a picture of Christ, or the Bible. Take time to enjoy the scent in the presence of Christ, who loves you."
I looked at the lilac freesias belatedly sent to me by my daughter as a Mothering Sunday gift, and a white tea rose I found in the garden the other day, the first of the year. I know both are scented. But I can't smell them. I could pour what I know to be perfume on to a tissue, but I wouldn't be able to smell it. I can imagine what the house must have smelt like when Mary broke open that perfume jar, but if I did likewise, I would smell nothing. Truly, the loss of a sense is a terrible thing.

But it could be much worse. I am alive, and as far as I know have suffered no other lasting ill effects from the virus. And my sense of smell is beginning to return. I can smell some foods now, and the awful smell of rancid fat that pervaded everything for a few days - even outside in the garden - is fading. But there are many, many things that I still can't smell, or that don't smell as they used to. At least wine doesn't smell like paintstripper any more. But I wish, I wish I could smell the flowers.

Meditating on the story of Mary and her perfume made me painfully aware of what I have lost. And I found myself thinking of all those who suffer lasting sensory deprivation, whether it be smell, taste, sight, sound or touch. I have glimpsed their world, and in this piece I have tried to set down something of the grief that this has caused me. I can't imagine what it must be like to lose one or more senses permanently.

So whenever you smell flowers, or hear birdsong, or see the sunset, remember those for whom this is a pleasure denied. And perhaps commit to supporting in some way people who have lasting sensory deprivation, perhaps by making a donation to pay for the training of a sight or hearing dog, or creating and maintaining a sensory garden. I shall be doing so.

I hope one day to be able to smell the flowers again.

Related reading:

Pilate's Game

Support links (UK):

Guide dogs for the blind
Hearing dogs for deaf people
Sensory Trust


  1. "Things are made clear by their opposites." —Rumi

    "It is disease that makes health sweet and good; hunger, satiety; weariness, rest." —Heraclitus

    “Earth's crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God,
    But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
    The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
    — Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Aurora Leigh)

  2. God bless you, Frances. Hope for your full recovery soon.

  3. Hope you get better!

  4. When we think of sensory loss, we usually think of the loss of sight or hearing. But we perhaps rarely think of, and very much underestimate, the catastrophe constituted by the loss of our senses of taste and/or smell.

    Years ago, after a visit to the dentist, I realised I had lost all sense of taste. The narcotic had worn off, but my sense of taste had not come back. The only thing I perceived of any food was its texture. Because of this, I had lost all enjoyment of eating and no appetite whatsoever. I realised that, if I wanted to live on, I would have to force myself to eat. I was not all sure if that would have been possible. I was in a state of utter despair.

    Very fortunately, after a week or so my sense of taste gradually returned. The dentist had hit a nerve with his injection. But it might not have. We have reason to be infinitely grateful for our senses. We take them for granted as long as they work well, but the wonderful thing also is that we can often take them for granted. I was reminded of this episode when I read your blog post. I am very happy for you that your sense of smell has since returned!


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