Body Possessed by Media: the Bodily Odors of the Saints; Or, Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten

by on Sep.21, 2010


Fi Jae Lee, "Everything Ascending Into Heaven Smells Rotten"

Some Catholic saints are known as “Les Incorruptibles” precisely because their bodies do not decay after death, which is, circularly enough, a sign of their sainthood, but some also are known (when living) to have released their own perfumes(not in the sense that Britney Spears and JLo released the “Curious” and “Glow” perfumes, although not entirely not in that sense).

Such a perfume is known as the ‘odor of sanctity’, associated with bodily proximity or even proximity to bodily fluids of the saints. Catholic websites relate that a bloody bandage removed from a sore on Padre Pio’s chest released his holy perfume all the way to Rome, where it was being brought for labwork ( I couldn’t find this website again when I wanted to annotate– diabolical intervention?). Odor and sainthood metonymize each other. Both are incorruptible and stick around, taking up space. The persistence of this odor of sanctity, its ineradicability, testifies to the stability and homogeneity of the saint’s moral composition, the solidity of his bodily holiness—even as it performs a countermodality of entropy and (reeky) contagion.

It also gets ahead of the saint’s life narrative, in that it foreshadows the saint’s nearness to God after his death, his ability to intercede with God on man’s behalf. It’s like, this guy’s so close to God, even God can smell this guy. Or maybe, he’s so close to God, we can smell God on him.

In the case of Padre Pio, his profuse ‘odor of sanctity’ was itself witness to his saintly tendency towards ‘bilocation’, or ability to be in two places at once. Quoth Catholic website EWTN,

“The phenomenon of bilocation is one of the most remarkable gifts attributed to Padre Pio. His appearances on various of the continents are attested by numerous eye witnesses, who either saw him or smelled the odors characteristically associated with his presence, described by some as roses and by others as tobacco. The phenomenon of odor (sometimes called the odor of sanctity) is itself well established in Padre Pio’s case. The odor was especially strong from the blood coming from his wounds. Investigation showed that he used absolutely no fragrances or anything that could produce these odors. The odors often occurred when people called upon his intercession in prayer and continue to this day.”

Here the odor of sanctity, be it tobacco or roses, is in surplus to itself—well, is it tobacco or roses?  It is surplus to presence and also evidence of it; at the same time, Father Pio is capable of multiple bodily locations or presences. His is a sign that stands for flux and surplus. The meduimicity of the saint is also evident in this rhetoric- his odor moves through him, and vice versa.

The most acute rendition of Padre Pio’s bilocation is itself a dense tangle of narrative signs and signals:

“The most remarkable of these reported incidents occurred on January 18, 1905 shortly before midnight. Padre Pio was in the choir at the friary when, according to his description, his mind traveled to a location in Udine where a child was being born prematurely just moments before the death of her father. In 1923 he met the girl and “recognized” her. The girl’s mother recalled very clearly the death of her husband and the vision of a Capuchin monk in Udine on the night when the girl was born.”

What, besides Padre Pio’s saintliness, is signaled to us by this account? What is signaling through this jumble of narrative flames (that is, frames?)? What is the significance of the child’s prematurity, the father’s death, except that they are turned into a kind of chronometer, their own narratives smashed up to secure the temporal timeline of Pio’s bilocation? 

But Padre Pio’s physical body, was, in fact, all too penetrable. In his lifetime, Padre Pio suffered a number of physical ailments, including asthma, bronchitis, acute stomach problems, tuberculosis of the skin. He also suffered from ailments that, like him,  seemed doubly located in his soul and in his body. He suffered stigmata and ‘transverberation’ in which “The soul being inflamed with the love of God which is interiorly attacked by a Seraph, who pierces it through with a fiery dart. This leaves the soul wounded, which causes it to suffer from the overflowing of divine love”. On account of this experience, a “first class relic” of Padre Pio is “a large framed square of linen bearing a bloodstain from “the wound of the transverberation of the heart” in Padre Pio’s side” and is “exposed for public veneration at the St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.” (This paragraph’s quotes from Wikipedia).

Because everything ascending into heaven smells rotten.

Oddly, while Pio welcomed his mundane physical sufferings as a chance to become “a victim of divine love”, Pio was beset with embarassment at these physical manifestations and asked for them to be removed:

“Dear Father, I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel deep in my soul. I am afraid I shall bleed to death if the Lord does not hear my heartfelt supplication to relieve me of this condition. Will Jesus, who is so good, grant me this grace? Will he at least free me from the embarrassment caused by these outward signs? I will raise my voice and will not stop imploring him until in his mercy he takes away, not the wound or the pain, which is impossible since I wish to be inebriated with pain, but these outward signs which cause me such embarrassment and unbearable humiliation.”(

It’s pretty hard to imagine reacting to the ultimate sign of holy intervention with humiliation and embarassment. But Padre Pio, it seems, rejected his extreme mediumicity. He did not want the outward signs. He did not want to be a surface of fact.

Not incidentily, when Padre Pio’s body was exhumed for examination in 2008, it was declared intact; he was among the incorruptibles.

“Local Archbishop monsignor Domenico D’Ambrosio, who was present at the exhumation, said: “[…] You can clearly see the beard, knees, hands, the nails – if Padre Pio will forgive me it’s as if he has just had a manicure.”

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2 comments for this entry:
  1. Robb

    It’s (not totally) unrelated, I think, but one of the things that this phrase you’ve been working with (“bodies possessed by media”) makes me think of is Fred Moten’s reading of Marx’s notion of the commodity that can(not) speak, in “In the Break.” For the multiple connotative senses of “possess,” I think, it’s hard for me not to move toward capital.

    Here, also, I like that it’s odor that is able to be mobilized as symbolic (in a different way than those effects which materialize on the body’s surface as medium); when Lukacs tries to think of how exactly to describe what it is that Walter Scott renders in the historical novel (he shuffles through all sorts of issues of what is or isn’t “representative”), he takes recourse in odor. He isolates the “very aroma and tone” of a historical period as that which Scott brings forward into his writing–it’s meant in some way as a sort of synaesthetic metonymy, but that’s the sense that he finds most (e/pro)vocative, the one that will do this work in the symbolic order. Why should odor slip so easily into this register?

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi Robb:
    thank you so much for this comment and these intertexts. What’s funny is, I started writing about Catholic saints as I was actually writing something about synethesia– the idea that one set of sensory data could serve as a kind of medium for another– sound to odor, texture to color, etc. My brainstorming led me to this thinking about the physical/bodily properties of the saints and their extreme mediumicity. I will follow up with the Lukacs and Moten you mention. And I’m particularly interested (in my own writing) in anachronism– so I will be interested to see how that fits in with Lukacs’s thinking.

    So thanks very much! JM