Thursday, 3 May 2012

Techniques for Thurible Management

Recently there has been a brief flurry of correspondence between Fathers Finigan (see Fr Tim's account HERE)
and Zuhlsdorf regarding the rather profound issue of whether to clink or not clink the thurible at High Mass.

This prompted me to jot down a few notes on thurible etiquette especially as, at Mass last Sunday, the celebrant was all but knocked out by an enthusiastic MC who incensed over enthusiastically.

Of course, the modern day altar server starts with a massive advantage over us pre Vat II lads. You see, back in my day (yawn) the charcoal was pure and unadulterated, much like myself, ahem.

Today’s charcoal is impregnated with chemicals that make it catch light immediately a flame is within three feet of it whereas, back in the dark ages, an altar boy had to suffer third degree burns to his fingers and work at it for half an hour before a faint glow would result.

When the new charcoal was introduced it was called atomic charcoal – such were the times we lived in then.

So today, the thurifer must commence his duties in the sacristy at least ten minutes before Mass commences; he must light the charcoal and loosen up his thurible arm by swinging the thurible vigorously in an anti clockwise direction at least twenty times at head height to ensure that the charcoal is glowing nicely and his muscles are toned up.

Then he must practice his pre incense reception technique: this is where he prepares the thurible for the celebrant to place incense within. Now thuribles come with a complicated chain and pulley arrangement that require the skills of a brain surgeon and double jointed wrists and fingers.
What many young servers today do not appreciate is that the top half of the thurible (which rises according to the aforesaid chain and pulley controls) is apt to become welded to the bottom half unless it is raised slightly at all times.
Failure to do so may mean that the thurifer has to hold the base and jerk the chain in order to release the two halves.

That may sound simple but, dear reader, the bottom half tends to become roasting hot and it takes the courage of a St Laurence to withstand the agony when it is grasped.

 An added hazard arises if a slow or elderly priest is the celebrant: the poor thurifer who has to grasp the white hot base may be hanging on for dear life and biting his tongue in order that he does not let out a series of wimpish shrieks; any burns received under such circumstance account for a considerable remission of time in Purgatory.

So, having prepared fully before Mass it only remains for the thurifer or MC to appoint a boat boy, that is, the smallest altar server available who will hold the incense “boat” and proffer it to the priest at the appropriate times.

The servers then process to the sanctuary, led by the thurifer and it is wise to allow a good ten feet between him and his fellow servers on the principle that, if the thurible does not concuss them, the smoke will surely render them unconscious.

                                This helpful video shows the best use
                                                 of a thurible and is an example of the
                                          good relationship between MC and Thurifer

Now we come to the technique known as ‘offering the thurible’.

The moment when the thurifer, accompanied by the boat boy, opens the thurible ready to receive the grains of incense.
If, as stated earlier, the top half has not been kept slightly out of contact with the bottom half you are likely to have a “locked thurible” situation and this can often result in what is known as the “thurible dance” because, as the thurible is jerked apart red hot fragments of glowing charcoal scatter across the sanctuary carpet and Father’s blood pressure rises dangerously high.
The “stomp” begins when priest, thurifer and boat boy desperately jump on the burning charcoal chips in an attempt to salvage the carpet and avoid an even worse conflagration.
At last all is under control and the priest administers the incense and proceeds to give a demo of how to handle a thurible.
This tends to upset the thurifer as Father makes it look terribly easy and when the MC finally takes the thurible and hands it back to its owner it is snatched ungraciously out of his hands.

Now the thurifer is in an awful strop and expresses his feelings by swinging the fully “loaded” instrument to and fro scattering the acolytes and creating a smoke screen that blinds the MC and causes the smaller boys to pass out.

Finally, as a layman I hesitate to take side on the ‘to clink or not to clink’ issue but, after due consideration I have to come down in favour of clinking.

A thuruble that does not clink is like a sanctuary bell that does not ring – useless. But, it is really down to the incensing technique of the thurifer as far as obtaining a resounding clink is concerned.

The fingers of the left hand* of the thurifer should firmly grasp the top of the chains while his left hand takes hold of the bottom part of the chains about 12 inches above the actual vessel part. The chains should pass betwixt the second and third digits allowing the thurifer to ‘flick’ the lower section at the moment that he raises his arms to incensing mode. After ‘flicking’ he brings the lower section back so that it collides with the chain and a click results.
A full click is known as a clang while a partial click is classified as a chink. A clang is by far the most desirable sound to make.

* If the thurifer is right handed, the reverse should apply

An easy and straightforward process that can be painlessly mastered over a period of some forty years or so.

Please note - the following clip shows an MBA in Advanced Thurible Management programme in operation:


  1. Clink.........what's the point of all the chains if you can't have a clink!

  2. Richard,
    I agree with your thinking no clinking is like-no bell ringing! I am certainly no Liturgist/Rubricist; I was taught that you carry the Thurible in the left hand if there no incense in it, once the incense is blest it is then transferred to the right hand! However, I don't know what the rubric is if you are left-handed?



  3. What movie is the first video from?

  4. Anon - sorry, no idea. It's on Youtube though.

  5. Hello Richard,
    finally I succeeded to install Translator on "Annotatiunculae".

  6. A touch of Jerome K Jerome. LOL.
    Definitely the clinks, no question.

  7. Oh my! A tad bit distracting.

  8. Genty - JKJ? Swoon. Thank you, I must re-visit his works.

    Thank you Don, not too distracting I hope.