The Nose of the Soul

September 03 2018 | by

“AFTER starting a new diet, I altered my drive to work to avoid passing my favorite bakery. I accidentally drove by the bakery this morning and, as I approached, there in the window were a host of chocolates, donuts, and cheesecakes. I felt this was no accident, so I prayed… ‘Lord, it’s up to You. If You want me to have any of those delicious goodies, create a parking place for me directly in front of the bakery.’ And sure enough, on the eighth time around the block, there it was! God is so good!”

This may be a joke that has been around for years yet it illustrates an important truth about discernment. The dieter made an initial good discernment by choosing not to drive past the bakery, a source of temptation. “Lead us not into temptation,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. However, did God lead the overweight individual into temptation when he or she accidentally drove by the bakery?

Saint James the Apostle writes (James 1:13), “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” Nevertheless, Jesus was led into the desert to be tempted by the devil, and this with God’s knowledge (Matthew 4). The Lord’s prayer says “lead us not into temptation” which means that, if we come to a temptation, we are praying that God leads us away from it, not into it.

Discernment has been a problem since Adam and Eve. Eve permitted her desire for the forbidden fruit to override her knowledge that God had told her to avoid it. She made the same mistake that the dieter made regarding the forbidden pastries, namely, justifying one’s own decision, and even thinking it is God’s will, instead of discerning and following God’s actual will.


A spiritual nose


St Anthony of Padua was familiar with our difficulties in discernment. Anthony used the term ‘discretion’ where we would use the term ‘discernment’. Today discretion more commonly means “the quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid causing offense or revealing private information.” However, in Anthony’s time, a second meaning of discretion as ‘the freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation’ was the more common usage.

Saint Anthony focused on the nose as a symbol of discernment. He wrote, “The ‘nose’ of the soul is the virtue of discretion, which sniffs out vice and virtue as the nose distinguishes nice and nasty smells. It also scents from a distance the approaching temptations of the devil” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals I, p. 108; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Messaggero di Sant’Antonio –Editrice).


Olfactory physiology


Anthony would have been fascinated to know how discriminating the sense of smell is. Tiny molecules of odiferous substances enter our olfactory system in two ways: either through our nostrils or the back of the throat… these air molecules land on the olfactory epithelium – a tissue covered in mucus that lines the nasal cavity. The epithelium contains millions of olfactory receptors, or neurons that are capable of binding with specific odor molecules. These are the ‘locks and keys’ of the olfactory system, which help identify certain smells… Once the olfactory receptors bind with a specific odor, they send their electrical impulses to a certain microregion, also known as the glomerulus (of which there are some 2,000 in the olfactory bulb), which then passes it along to other parts of the brain. The ‘odorant patterns’ that are released from the glomerulus are interpreted in the brain as smell. For a while, it was assumed that the human nose was capable of only smelling 10,000 different scents… the nose, in fact, is capable of much, much more, smelling up to one trillion scents.


Discriminating organ


Although unfamiliar with these modern discoveries, Anthony knew that the nose was an extremely discriminating organ, and he wanted the followers of Christ to be just as discriminating in their discernment. Anthony used a reference from the book of Job to illustrate the wide range of discernment capable of a faithful soul: “He [the just man] smelleth the battle afar off, encouraging of the captains and the shouting of the army” (Job 39.25). Anthony explains the nuances of this discernment, “The faithful soul senses with her ‘nose’ (the virtue of discretion) the battle of the flesh. She senses the encouraging of the captains, the misleading suggestions of vain reasoning, which under the guise of holiness may lead the soul to fall into the pit of iniquity. She senses the shouting of the army, the temptations of the demons who roar like beasts. The word translated as ‘shouting’ actually implies a bestial noise” (Sermons I, p.108)

The dieter in the introductory example did not “smelleth the battle afar off,” although he or she could smell the pastries! This individual mistook “the misleading suggestions of vain reasoning” for God’s Will (if God wants me to have any of those delicious goodies, He will give me a parking place in front of the bakery). This led the soul to justify circling the block several times until, “under the guise of holiness,” the overeater succumbed to the temptation to break the diet because God finally freed up a parking spot. Failing to recognize that the subtle call of the tantalizing pastries was actually the “shouting of the army… of the demons who roar like beasts,” the dieter fell to spiritual pride that implied, “I’m good and holy so God brought me here to treat me to my favorite goodies.”


Importance of humility


Saint Anthony recognized that accurate discernment is impossible without the virtue of humility. “The virtue of discretion is to be found most of all in humility of heart and chastity of body” (Sermons I, p.108). While chastity is most often thought of in relationship to sexual activity, chastity can also deal with any other way we use the body, including eating. Gluttony is a sin just as is fornication. Anthony says that the person who possesses “humility of heart and chastity of body” “can look boldly towards…. (the devil) who desires to drink the blood of our souls. She sees very clearly his malice and subtlety” (Sermons I, p.108). Blinded by pride and desire, our dieter saw “very clearly” only the pastries. Anthony sums up discernment in these words: “just as we hold our nose and turn away from a bad smell, so by the virtue of discernment we should turn away from the uncleanness of sin” (Sermons I, p.110).

Interestingly, on her internet blog Jamie Rohrbaugh, a Christian author and speaker, asserts that “the absolute best way I can describe discerning of spirits is to say this: When you have this gift, you can ‘smell’ what kind of spirit is present in a space – either in the place that you’re in, or in the person to whom you’re speaking… You can just smell the spirit when someone walks in. It’s not a literal smell necessarily (although it could be); it’s a spiritual sensation, but it’s not dull at all. It’s a very sharp, very keen awareness. And, whether something evil or something holy is operating, more often than not you can see it when you look into a person’s eyes.” Jamie sums up discernment in words that would have made Saint Anthony nod in agreement. “Discernment of spirits: because you can’t win the battle if you can’t see your enemy.”

Updated on September 03 2018