Incense is a topic that, in some places, can be almost as divisive as the subject of sacred music. In many parishes it is no longer used — period. In some places, it is only used once or twice a year — a very rare bird. We use it weekly at our Solemn Mass in my parish.
(I remember hearing of one rather wealthy parish where it was used weekly — but they positioned air purifiers around the perimeter of the sanctuary to prevent, as much as possible, the smoke from getting out into the congregation… Ugh…….)
There are countless anecdotes of priests or server “wags” who, for a laugh, walked into the church with an unlit censer to see if people would start coughing — and some did. No smoke, but still coughing! Yes, some people have decided that they’re allergic, whether there is any incense actually present or not. Then, of course, there are some who are truly allergic. I don’t mean to downplay real health issues.
Leaving controversies and allergies aside, the question is: Which incense is best? You may be surprised to find out that I have an opinion.
A browse through any religious supply catalog will turn up any number of possibilities. Most of which — in my supremely humble opinion — are no good. So much of what is sold today has chemicals and fillers added and, even if it starts out smelling OK, ends up being rancid or otherwise foul.
Recently, a friend in Mexico who runs a religious goods shop there contacted me for my recommendations. Here are the suggestions I sent him — based on my own experience of having tried much of what is on the market over the past nearly 20 years:
1. Pure Frankincense from Ethiopia — http://www.boswelliasproject.org/order
I received several advertisements from this supplier before I determined that they were legit and decided to give them a try. And I’m glad I did. First, it is probably the cheapest solution out there at present: basically, if you order a kilo, it works out to $26 per pound. And they give you a small returning customer discount. Many commercially-produced incenses, by comparison, cost $10 or $20 more than that.
This is pure frankincense “from the source” — from the part of the world where it is harvested. It is a “fair trade” product that helps the people in that region. It’s organic. I bet it’s even gluten free… Be sure to browse their site for more info — including a video on this page.
Pure frankincense has a clean, “classic” scent that does not sour. This firm also sells some scents that you can mix in, such as Myrrh, Amber, etc. It doesn’t take much to transform the whole batch: a small amount (2 oz.) is enough for a whole pound. Of course, you can also add the scent in “to taste”. This is our go-to incense at my parish; we use it most Sundays. I highly recommend it and am very pleased with it.
2. Prinknash Abbey Brand Incenses (incidentally, pronounced “Prinnish”)
This is one of the finer commercially-prepared incenses on the market. They have several scents — my favorite is “Sanctuary”. You can buy a sampler pack to try them out and decide what’s best. Contact your religious goods supplier to order — they no longer sell directly from the UK; you have to go through a US distributor. If your local supplier doesn’t carry it, try the online “Aquinas and More” store.
Being imported from the UK and being commercially-distributed, the cost is also a bit higher. I have also had some experiences of the smell “souring” after burning for a bit, though usually it’s fine. Some of their blends have colored granules, which suggests that they add colors/chemicals to their base solution. Many priests, in any case, swear by this brand. It is really lovely overall.
On their monastery web site (which is a little “under construction”-looking), they have a Youtube video about how they make their incense. They have a pretty long tradition there and, in traditional monastic fashion, the “recipe” is safely guarded and handed down. Check out this page on their site for that video.
3. Orthodox Incense — https://www.orthodoxincense.com/
This seller provides attentive service and good prices for traditional Greek Orthodox-style incense — that is, uniform chunks of resin in white powder.
Many priests love this style but I have to say that it mostly “all smells the same” to me: it tends to be highly perfumed and have a very pungent/sweet odor. To me, this would work best for a very large space — it could choke out a smaller church.
As I mentioned, it tends to be very “perfumey”. There are floral scents and then there are several others — which, to me at least, mostly have a bit of floral smell also. I did like the pine-scented blend, which was very subtle, and there are some others that I like. Overall, I mostly use this type of incense on major feast days.
The quality is high and, as I said, the service is good.
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Well, there you have it. As I said, incense can be a divisive topic — there are also strong opinions about what type is “best”.
So many commercially-prepared blends today include fillers like cedar chips/sawdust (which only end up smelling bad and burnt, though they help to produce more smoke), as well as chemicals and colorants that probably contribute to allergy problems — in spite of, often, being labeled as “non-allergenic”! Some of them claim to be what is used in “the Vatican”, but if you believe that, I have a city-state to sell you for a good price.