Odor of Sanctity

Some people would pay good money for this experience. My tongue is black; I've spent the last two days huddled on the couch when I wasn't in the bathroom; I've lost eight pounds since Thursday, albeit most of it water; and everything that comes out of me now--yes, everything--smells sweet. No, I haven't been at a spa undergoing colonic irrigation and sauna baths, although my body temperature did crest at something over 103 degrees Fahrenheit. I've had the flu. What interests me most, other than the prospect that being so sick may really have knocked off a pound or two, is the smell. I've been reading for years about late medieval mystics who starved themselves, living only on the Eucharist, but I had always thought that the reports of their bodies smelling sweet was simply one of those hagiographical tropes. Now I'm not so sure.

Yes, what came out over the first fever-filled, whole-body-aching night (boy, was Thursday night interminable) smelled the way vomit and diarrhea usually do, but eventually there was nothing left inside of me except water and, after Friday morning when my husband was able to get to the drug store, Pedialyte. What if I maintained this diet indefinitely, like Lidwina of Schiedam (d. 1433)? Certainly, I would be thinner; no surprise there. But would this odor of sweetness linger, too? My tongue wouldn't stay black; I understand after an online search that that's an effect of the Pepto-Bismol. But perhaps my body would feel not only forever lightened, but also, as the holy women used to claim, freed from the stench of digestion and filled only with God. Alas, I'm feeling hungry again, so perhaps I'll never know. But it's nice to have proof that, once again, medieval hagiographers weren't necessarily making things up when they insisted that the saints exuded a heavenly odor.


  1. Well, that's fine. But I wouldn't cite it as evidence in your next book.

    Loved the first one, by the way.

  2. That's amazing! (Not your sickness, of course, I hope you get well soon.) But I always wondered about that. Kroll and Bachrach (http://www.amazon.com/Mystic-Psychology-Medieval-Mystics-Ascetics/dp/0415340519/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1224998870&sr=8-1) do a wonderful job of making us question our skepticism towards medieval mystics. I think that your experiences give proof to their assumption that, physiologically, we are very similar to our ancestors from 500-years ago. This gives me great faith to pursue flagellation (academically) with the conviction that they knew something we don't. Perhaps because our whole existence no longer revolves around experiencing God. Or because we no longer believe that there is a way to walk with Christ in a tangible way. Or because we're too Protestant (I say happily on Reformation Sunday) and focus a little too often on the resurrection, and a little too seldom on the flagellation and crucifixion.

  3. "But I wouldn't cite it as evidence in your next book."

    Why not? Too gross? What if I did the research on the phenomenon and found (as I did on a quick Google yesterday), that the sweet smell is actually associated with dehydration, not fasting in particular? One of the things that the hagiographers also tended to emphasize about the saints was that their bodies were all "dried up". We need to take our clues about the phenomena we are studying from everything we can, including, as a start, our own physical experience. After all, we do the same with our mental and emotional experiences as we're reading our sources.

  4. i'm not positive, but I think the smell you're experiencing is due to ketosis--in prolonged starvation the body has to start using ketone bodies for energy in the absence of glucose. the breath of people in ketosis has a fruity odor caused by acetone, a ketone.


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