I’m relieved that St. Christina the Astonishing isn’t officially venerated as a saint by the current Roman Catholic Church. While she has inspired many Christians by the austere practices of her faith, I believe her sense of smell is what left her out of the official canon of saints. At an early age her parents died and she was raised by two sisters. When she was 21, she suffered what might have been an epileptic seizure that was so severe, everyone assumed that she had died. At her funeral mass, as she was ready to be encoffined and buried, suddenly, she rose from the dead. Then, Christina levitated up into the rafters of the church so she wouldn’t have to the smell stench of the sinners. Many in her hometown in Belgium witnessed this strange event. Some considered her to be a saint and others thought she was simply insane. She lived in poverty and continued to levitate up, hide in cupboards, or lock herself in closets, to avoid the odors of sinners.
Contrary to Christina the Astonishing, Byron the Goldendoodle, my canine companion, rejoices at the stench of sinners. He loves to smell humans! Sometimes in the most embarrassing places. When he goes on walks it’s like a liturgical pilgrimage of olfactory delight. He knows our neighborhood because he can smell what’s new, and likely what happened weeks ago. Byron lingers over a bush where another dog has peed like I linger over the smell of freshly opened tea or coffee. He collects smells like he used to collect plastic bottles and beer cans that he’d carry home from our walk in McKennan Park when he was a pup.
I usually walk for exercise. Byron walks to smell. Byron the Goldendoodle, half Standard Poodle and half Golden Retriever, lumbers along with his curly haired, slightly overweight body. His big black nose propels him forward. Byron and I are a lot alike: overweight and somewhat lazy, slow to move, and always ready for some naughtiness.
On a crisp fall day, we left the house together for a walk. We had barely started when Byron jerked my arm toward a bush, lunging ahead of me to smell where another dog had peed. Or at least that is what I assume he was doing. Soon, he had added his own scent to the bush. I felt like I was walking with a nose attached to four feet. I stopped as Byron pulled me over to a tree and all of a sudden the pungent fragrance of fallen leaves stung my nose. I recalled the mounds of leaves my dad would rake and I would roll in before we burned them together. Those days are long gone, but the fragrance of burning leaves wafting upward is still one of my favorite memories of time with my dad.
Byron has taught me to open my eyes, to inhale and exhale with the rhythm of our walk, and to stop suddenly when something grabs my attention. I have usually gone on walks for exercise, to see how many steps I can add to my pedometer. Byron walks for the pleasure of it, enjoying and taking in everything around him. When I ask Byron to lead me on the walk, I forget to count the steps, and learn to see the world like Byron smells the world.
Byron sees the world through his nose. He smells what I see. It’s a complete mystery to me. Scientists claim that their sense of smell is at least 10,000 times stronger than ours and some even say 100,000 times stronger. Byron’s nose is very different from mine. One part of his nose is for smelling and the other part for breathing. Dogs’ nostrils move independently. Byron taught me about the pure pleasure of rolling in a dead deer carcass with its luxuriant aroma. It took at least 3 baths and a couple of days to get that odor out of his coat and the lining of my nose.
Dogs have something called a vomeronasal organ or Jacobson’s Organ, an auxiliary organ for detecting pheromones. Dogs have jobs: sniffing drugs, bedbugs, missing people, and clues at a crime scene. They can smell cancer. Maybe I’ll take Byron with me to the oncologist sometime.
Byron might be a saint after all. His nose is astonishing. The end of that big, hairy doodle nose sniffs each person or dog with the same pleasure that a chef does when she takes a fresh loaf of warm bread out of the oven. Byron’s memories reside in his nose. He knows what it’s like to let his prayers rise to doG like incense. Holy Smells. And Byron never avoids sinners! He smells me unconditionally. That’s what it means to be a Saint!
Listen to Dogs, by Gary Pederson, a 3-Part Invention inspired by our three dogs running and fighting playfully.