"One of my favorite books as a child was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin. The Simpson family, who lived near Rebecca's aunts, were extremely poor and the father was a ne'er-do-well. The Simpson children sold cakes of soap, not for money but for a premium — the gift the soap company sent with the sale of a certain number of boxes. Simply for the adventure of it, Rebecca was wildly successful in selling an abundance of soap on behalf of the Simpsons. The premium arrived in time for Thanksgiving: it was a kerosene banquet lamp with a red crepe shade. The aunts observed that since the Simpsons did not even have enough food for Thanksgiving dinner, it was ridiculous for them to own an ostentatious lamp that did the poor family little good. To Rebecca, however, the lamp gave the hungry family a sense of warmth and glow and comfort that was a feast in itself. Like Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus with her expensive jar of ointment over Judas's reasonable objections, sometimes pure extravagance is the best thing.

"For the same reason, if I am going to go to all the trouble of cleaning my house and fighting the incessant showers of dust and dirt, I am going to take one extra step after cleaning, and purify the house with incense. I have a bowl of stones from the shore of the Hudson River upon which I place a charcoal and incense I buy from the monastery. I light the charcoal outside and pour the incense on the coal before going back in to pray my way silently through each room. I pray for each person who inhabits the house and anyone who finds rest or comfort here as guest or neighbor. I pray in every corner, at each turn and threshold, over places to rest and chairs to study in, and at all the functional places: the sink, the table, the toilet, the beds, the work areas, the piano, the bookcases, the attic. I pray that in each place we will fulfill the particular duty given by God.

"The use of incense is primitive, a means of purification and sanctification long ago, even before written history. For me, incense evokes Sunday mornings, the scent sticking to our coats and clothes throughout the day, giving us an aura of sanctity, blessedness, church, community, purification. And extravagance. Incense is expensive.

"The scent of incense in my house reminds me that my home is a sanctuary and a place of prayer. Worship takes place in the midst of mundane tasks, in the little dramas of human relationship that play out in a family. When I burn incense I offer my life-breath back to God, the bad and the good: the breath in words I wish I had not said, and the breath that turns to song, and the unconscious breathing that marks my time between earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.