Goldfields God-Talk: Sandalwood
The Revd Dr Elizabeth J Smith AM | Mission Priest, Parish of The Goldfields
It grows very slowly in this dry climate. Its grey-brown branches twist, and its grey-green, leathery leaves point in all directions. Below ground, its roots steal moisture from nearby wattle trees. It lives much longer than they do.
A hundred and twenty years ago, if you couldn’t strike it rich on a goldfield, you might have become a sandalwood puller. You found your bush, you harnessed your horse to it, and you literally pulled it up by the roots. The little seeds, the size of a pea, inside the nut, are delicious when roasted, and rich in protein. Every part of the sandalwood plant – wood, leaves and roots – contains the fragrant oil. It is a commodity that trades today at high prices, up to thousands of dollars a litre for the oil. Much of it is exported for the cosmetics market. Aboriginal traditional owners are licensed to harvest and refine Goldfields sandalwood, building up local businesses.
Every time we baptise someone, we anoint them with perfumed oil, making the sign of the cross on their forehead. The customary fragrance for chrism is not sandalwood, but it could well be, if we were to embed our inherited customs more deeply into this land and its special gifts. The point of anointing after baptism is the fact of the fragrance itself, not the particular smell. We are washed clean of all the sin of the world, of the grime of sadness and badness that accumulates on everyone, and of the mess we make of our own lives by deliberately deciding to do the wrong thing, and by failing to do what’s right. After the washing comes the anointing: the fragrance of forgiveness replaces the stink of sin, and it hovers around each new Christian for everyone to breathe in and enjoy.
Ours is a faith for all five senses. Christianity is not just what I believe in my conscious mind. Faith is expressed in what I do with hands and feet. It’s in the words I speak as good news, and in the music that I hear or sing as I pray. It’s in what I feast my eyes on: nature’s beauty, the insight of visual artists, the face of Christ in the poorest of my neighbours. Faith is supported by the taste of communion bread in my mouth, by the touch of a loving hand when someone needs comfort, by the shoulder I cry on – and by the sense of smell, too, in the aroma of new birth from above.
No wonder St Paul uses fragrance as a metaphor for how Christians are to be in the world. Our vocation as resurrection people is not only to shine as a light in the world, but also to bring the fragrance of Christ into the stuffiest, foulest and most polluted of physical and spiritual atmospheres.
We are to carry about us a waft of resurrection, a breath of Holy Spirit-scented fresh air, into our workplaces, families and friendship networks, and into the presence of strangers.