Ah Bisto! Conspiracy Theories of Pentecost and Community

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People who breathe together, stay together. People who can smell one another create community. The person who holds his nose because he doesn’t like the air that he is breathing is excluding himself from that community.

Ivan Illich reminds us of an old German saying: ich kann Dich gut reichen, “I can smell you well”. It captures well an apect of openness we often miss. We have our eyes and ears open, but rarely do we talk about having our nose open. I can smell you well. For me that adds another sense to the story of the Good Samaritan. Did the victim in the ditch smell so badly that people could not tolerate his smell, and had to walk by on the other side, holding their nose against the stink. With nose open, the Good Samaritan had his arms free to manhandle the victim to safety and recovery.


There is a custom in Christian liturgy called the “kiss of peace“, or osculum pacis – only recovered relatively recently in the Church of England. These days the kiss of peace isn’t so much a kiss as a handshake – very British – but at least it’s touching. Apparently in some places, until the 3rd century, the kiss was “mouth to mouth”, and was a sharing and mingling of breath. John’s story of Pentecost reminds us that Jesus breathed on his disciples, saying “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). They smelt each other well. They shared their breath in con-spiracy. The church formed conspiratorially to be a conspiracy. Illich writes:

“Peace as the commingling of soil and water sounds cute to my ears; but peace as the result of conspiratio exacts a demanding, today almost unimaginable, intimacy.”

Pax board, Early 16th century, in a frame from 19th century
16th century Pax Board from Budepest

The intimacy didn’t last as some regarded the practise as scandalous.  For example, Tertullian (in the third century) was rather worried about possible embarassment to “a decent matron”. The practice got well watered down. By the 13th century, the Catholic Church had substituted a pax board which the congregation kissed instead of kissing one another!

“Don’t imagine you can be friends with people you can’t smell.” That was the advice Illich was given. Friendships and communities develop amongst people who smell each other well, who can breathe in the air and the smell of their friends and neighbours, and who allow their own air and smell to be breathed by others. Friendships and communities are conspiracies – threatened in our de-odourised times of Lynx, Colgate and Ambi-pur where we struggle to smell anyone, or anything, well.

The playground cry “you stink, you stink” marks a cruel exclusion by those who won’t smell a person well – it is often accompanied with the gesture of the nose being held or up-turned. The person excluded has to find their friends who are prepared to smell. Above every friendship, every community, every conspiracy, there is a nose.

One thought on “Ah Bisto! Conspiracy Theories of Pentecost and Community

  1. >Fascinating, illuminating as always, and much appreciated, David. It's altogether a cause for thanksgiving that at least God is still allowed to share breath with us, isn't it? I've been reflecting on intimacy-in-Trinity and in the "Body of Christ" today. Would that we were what we say we are, eh?Thank you 🙂

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