Martha’s fingers often smelled of garlic at day’s end, and in the hours when sleep would not come she held them near her face and reflected on the time that had passed: the aching place in her back where she held weight above two feet flat on cold clay pavement, the way her torso curved to prop the dish up to her right hand, the way men’s faces looked around the table when they had tasted something good. Sometimes there were notes of lemon, too, sometimes the scent of olive oil or yeast, yet garlic was the base beneath them all. On this night, however, she could detect none of those familiar things. Even from her bed the overwhelming smell of spikenard was inescapable. The whole house bloomed with it, like a dessert flower spread wide open to the moon. Neighbors, passing by the darkened windows which the fragrance wafted from, might have thought that a marriage bed had been prepared within if they had not known better. The household pulsed with this perfume from the points where it had been applied, just like points at the wrist, or at the neck behind the ears: it rose from the slick still wet on the floor where his feet had been, but even more than this, it rose from Mary’s hair. She turns in the night, her eyes wholly given in to sleep, and her cheek sets itself softly into bands of hair that still smell like him. The dirt of long roads traveled, sun, skin, lake water and wood, with spikenard as the base beneath them all. In the days to come she will pass between stalls at market with the scent trailing just behind, raising eyes and nostrils as she goes. Hungry men will forget the taunting smell of roast meats momentarily in her wake, distracted by the thoughts of lavender boughs and bedrooms that will follow her everywhere.
Devotion has a way of lingering upon a human soul in love. We recognize it in the dazed eyes of love-struck teenagers or in the glow about a gardener well-satisfied with his day of labor. Devotion can make us strange with a peculiar commitment. It possess us with a single-minded focus and fills us with encyclopedic knowledge of some things mostly undervalued by others. Devotees, for their part, often seem queer to normal eyes: attending Comic Cons, standing for hours in the rain for tickets to a show, pouring over forgotten manuscripts, slaving for hours to perfect a recipe or for years to write a dissertation. For all the singleness of mind and body which we sharpen with these vows, the heart also longs to be so committed. The heart longs to sink into the steady rocking of a single phrase: “You are good, you are good, you are good.” The heart longs to behold the object of her praise as she softly sings to it. A thousand other objects may distract from and divide this task, responsibilities and commitments to the systems of this world that weigh us down with their requests and deplete our resources. They are like a circle of disciples standing round wringing hands fearful of the consequences suggested by their master’s aim. From among them the heart steps forth and kneels. She pours her life out in praise and grows fragrant with it’s offering while the others blush, sneer, or turn their heads. In this same fashion, God breaks through the nervous circle of our doubts and fears and anger and sadness and shame to kneel at the cradle of our infant souls, to clasp her feet and hands and head close to the bosom of the body that gave her breath, whispering to her ears: “You are good, you are loved, you are mine.”
God’s own person has been made strange with the knowledge of us. In devoted singleness of heart, the Spirit of the Deep comes to search our souls, to inhabit our own feelings and desires, to cry our tears and bleed our blood. Peculiar signs to mark a God so mighty. In our own devotion, we may grow more peculiar still. We may learn the names of those passed over by the world, and then we may learn their lives. We may develop a singular focus upon those who seem unlovable because the existence of this condition totally contradicts the truth which we believe. We may even sell our riches and give the money to the poor, that we may be closer still to the object of our heart’s desire. In such a release as this, in such an expensive pouring out, even the taunting stench of death may be forgotten in the fragrance of God’s wide-embracing love. The whole body hums with well-worn melodies of joyful praise. The world notes a lightness in our step and brows rise at the suggestion of something so profoundly good walking in the midst of us. They will inquire of the spirit in whose wake we linger, love-struck and glowing, and we will tell them of a house that blooms with fragrant offerings, and of the love waiting for us there.