The use of incense is full of significance. It is at the same time symbolic, honorific and purificatory. It ascends before God, as a symbol of the prayers and devotion of the people; but also it spreads through the church as a symbol of the sweet savour of the blessing of God. It is offered as a mark of respect, as it was in many of the older religions; but it is also used with a definite idea of purification, and so the Priest pours into it a holy influence with the intention that wherever its scent may penetrate, wherever the smallest particle of that which has been blessed may pass, it shall bear with it a sense of peace and purity, and shall chase away all inharmonious thoughts and feelings.
Even apart from the blessing, its influence is good, for it is carefully compounded from certain gums, the undulation-rate of which harmonizes perfectly with spiritual and devotional vibrations, but is distinctly hostile to almost all others. The magnetization may merely intensify its natural characteristics, or may add to it other special oscillations, but in any case its use in connection with religious ceremonies is always desirable. The scent of sandalwood has many of the same properties; and the scent of pure attar of roses, though utterly different in character, has also a good effect.
More than a hundred varieties of incense are known, and each of the ingredients employed has its own special influence on the higher bodies of man. There is a science of perfumes, and evil powers as well as good may be invoked by such means. Nearly all the incenses prepared for church use contain a large proportion of benzoin and olibanum, as experience has shown that these are both pleasing and effective. Benzoin is almost savagely ascetic and purifying; it deals trenchantly with all the grosser forms of impure thought, and is excellent for use in a great cathedral crowded with somewhat undeveloped individual. For smaller assemblies of less bucolic minds it needs a large admixture of other elements to produce the best results. Olibanum is the special incense of devotion; its fragrance tends strongly to awaken that feeling in those who are at all capable of it, and to deepen and intensify it where it already exists. A judicious mixture of these two gums is found satisfactory in practice, so it is frequently employed as a basis or central stock, to which other less important flavourings may be added.
C.W. Leadbeater The Science of the Sacraments Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1967:84-86
Leadbeater was also insistent that incense be used in the rituals of Co-Masonry.
This use of incense is perfectly scientific. All occult students are aware that, as was said in the last chapter, there is no such thing as really dead matter, but that everything in nature possesses and radiates out its own vibration or combination of vibrations. Every chemical element has thus its own set of influences, which are useful in certain directions and useless or even hostile in others. It is in this way quite possible, for example, to mingle certain gums which, when burnt as incense, will strongly stimulate the purer and higher emotions; but one could just as easily make another mixture whose vibrations would promote the most undesirable feelings. This is a matter about which some people are sceptical, because humanity is at present passing through a stage in its evolution during which its development is almost exclusively that of the lower mind, which is fiercely intolerant of anything which it has not specially studied. We all know how difficult it has been until quite lately to gain any recognition for non-physical phenomena, such as those of telepathy or clairvoyance, or indeed anything outside the most materialistic science.
Now the time has come when men are beginning to see that life is full of invisible influences, whose value can be recognized by sensitive people. The effect of incense is an instance of this class of phenomena, as is also the result of the use of talismans and of certain precious stones, each of which vibrates at its own rate and has its own value. Such things are not usually of importance so great that we need give much time to their consideration, but they all have their effects, and are therefore not to be entirely neglected by wise people.
The incense used in the Lodge tends to purify that part of man’s nature which is sometimes called the astral body, as it is made of gums which give off an intensely cleansing vibration. In this respect its effect is analogous to the sprinkling of a disinfectant, which will spread about in the air and destroy undesirable germs, though in this case the operation is on higher levels and in finer matter. It has also the effect of attracting denizens of the inner worlds whose presence is helpful to our working, and of driving away those which are unsuitable.
Two of the most important constituents of such incense as is useful for our work are benzoin and olibanum. The benzoin is a vigorous purifier, and tends to drive away all coarse or sensuous feelings and thoughts. The olibanum has nothing to do with that, but it creates a devotional and restful atmosphere, and tends to stimulate those vibrations in the astral body which make people responsive to higher things. Attar of roses is also useful, and adds greatly to the effect produced.
If the incense is intelligently magnetized its strength is increased enormously; for example, by putting into olibanum the definite force of the will in the direction of calmness and devotion, its influence may be increased by perhaps a hundredfold. That is why the incense in church is always taken up to the celebrant to be blessed, and why in the Lodge it is brought to the R.W.M. in order that he may magnetize it with whatever special quality he thinks will be helpful for the work of the day. The sprinkling of holy water in a church is another way of producing a similar effect, but incense has the advantage that it rises into the air, and wherever a single particle goes the purification and blessing is borne with it.
It is desirable on all occasions, and especially in Lodge, in the interests of the work, that the Brn. should have in their minds but a few definite and strong vibrations of emotion and thought; but instead of that they sometimes have forty or fifty small vortices of emotional and mental activity all whirling at once, each representing some small worry or care or desire. It is difficult for a person to do good work while these are present, and almost impossible for him to make real progress in the evolution of consciousness. If he is trying to attain a better emotional and mental condition, the incense will offer him a strengthening current of vibration which will help very much in combing out the tangle and producing calm and steadiness.
We sometimes find that there is much prejudice against the use of incense, because it is supposed to be connected exclusively with the ceremonies of the Roman Church, for it is only there and in some of the higher Anglican churches that Western people ever see it. Those who have travelled in the East, or are interested in the study of other faiths, know that practically all the religions of the world use incense in one form or another. It appears in the temples of the Hindus, the Zoroastrians, the Jains, and in the Shinto of China and Japan. It was used in Greece, in Rome, in Persia, and in the ceremonies of Mithra. All these people, including the Roman Catholics, avail themselves of it because they know it to be a useful thing; why then should not we?
For a time in England there was a very strong puritan wave, shortly after the Reformation, which led to the murder of King Charles, to the Commonwealth and to Cromwell’s rule. True, there was a reaction at the time of the Restoration, but the puritan feeling seems to have been of the most intense kind, and traces of it still remain in England, some of them showing themselves in the most amazing and unreasoning prejudice.
That feeling has sometimes entered Masonic circles, and efforts have been made to induce the Grand Lodge to limit the definition of the Great Architect, so as to exclude the possible association of Masonry with non-Protestant beliefs. But the Grand Lodge has liberally refused to create any such limitations. Under the Grand Lodge of England incense is prescribed for the ceremony of consecrating a Lodge and the Consecrating Officer and the Wardens are censed, though no definite number of swings appears to be laid down. Incense is also used in the Consecration of a Chapter of the Holy Royal Arch, under the Supreme Grand Chapter of England, and in the ceremonial of many of the higher degrees. Thus its introduction into Co-Masonic Lodges is in no way an innovation, but is in full accordance with Masonic usage.
C.W. Leadbeater The Hidden Life in Freemasonry Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1926:128-132
As part of his psychic research in preparing the liturgy for the Liberal Catholic Church, Leadbeater clairvoyantly examined the effects of 119 incense blends to determine the occult effects of each. The results of his examinations were committed to writing but, it seems, never published. Some examples follow:
The biologist, writer on occult subjects, and one-time Liberal Catholic Priest, W.B. (William Bernard) Crow, also wrote on the psychic effects of incense in The Occult Properties of Herbs The Aquarian Press, London, 1969 as did the writer on magical topics, Eric Maple in The Magic of Perfume. Aromatics and their Esoteric Significance The Aquarian Press, London, 1973.
The major scholarly study of incense in the early Christian liturgical tradition is Susan Ashbrook Harvey Scenting Salvation. Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination University of California Press, 2006. It is interesting that some early Christian writers were concerned with what they called the “spiritual”, and Leadbeater would have called the “psychic” effects of particular aromatics and blends of aromatics. The standard Christian works on incense in liturgy, unsurprisingly, do not refer to psychic research or the occult effects of the incense.