Leif Kehrwald

Sage is very important to the prayer of native Lakota people. From this plant, they light fire and create a fragrant smoke that they believe to be sacred and pleasing to the Great Spirit. To pray in the Lakota way, one must first smudge. This means taking a bit of dried sage, rubbing it together into a small bundle, and lighting it. As the smoke wafts from the bundle, the individual, or all those gathered for prayer, pass the bundle and encircle themselves with the fragrant smoke. It is a purification ritual. Only then will the drummer call in the spirits with song.

Smudging is very common among the Lakota. All ritual, all ceremony begins with smudging. While done with reverence, the action is typically not formal. Each person smudges in his or her own way, and smiles and assurances are often exchanged while people smudge.

We Catholics "smudge" in our own way . . . using incense. Typically, for high ceremony and special occasions our worship will include incensing of the altar, the Book of the Gospels, the gifts of bread and wine, and the assembly of worshipers. It is a sign of prayer and purification. From the earliest Christian days, incensing has been associated with Jesus, beginning with the Magi gift of frankincense (Matt. 2:10-11). Like sage for the Lakota, frankincense has always been used to honor God.

For Catholics, incense is typically used in formal, communal settings. Yet this practice has its origins in personal prayer. The theological foundation for incensing lies in the very personal prayer of Psalm 141. "Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening sacrifice" (v.2).


With this in mind, Paul Melley sings Incense Psalm.

Like burning incense, O Lord,
let my prayer rise up, rise up to you.
Like burning incense, O Lord,
let my prayer rise up, rise up to you.

Lord, I've called to you;
come to help me.
Hear my voice when I cry to you.
Let my prayer arise before you like incense,
the raising of my hands like an evening oblation.

As you embark on your Lenten journey, let your prayer rise up to God like burning incense. It might help to think about it in the Lakota way, imagining that your prayers are voiced in a three-fold manner. The intentions are first formed in your heart as you prepare the sage to be burned. Second, the way of your prayer to God is charted by the fragrant smoke of the smudge. And finally, the prayers of your heart are heard as you focus your full attention on God.

To you, Lord God, my eyes are turned;
in you I take refuge; spare my soul!

Like burning incense, O Lord,
let my prayer rise up, rise up to you.

Whether we use frankincense in formal liturgy, or sage in our personal prayer, or simply light a candle at the dinner table, we can be assured that our prayer will permeate the atmosphere all around us, intermingling with God's presence which is as close as the air we breathe.

Related Link:
Incense Has Symbolic Meaning

Spirit Compass reflections are developed in partnership
with the Center for Ministry Development.

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