“The senses are a doorway to the sacred.”
In the first article in this series, we looked at why awareness is crucial to our spiritual formation. Then in the second, we discussed some of the reasons why it is difficult to maintain a state of awareness. In this third article, we will consider the role our five physical senses play in helping us cultivate awareness, in ways that encourage our spiritual growth.
I wonder, as you reflect back on your life, where you are able to identify times when you felt especially awakened to the work of God within you? Sometimes it is at times of grief or hardship, when we are shaken from our complacency and almost thrust upon God by our circumstances and need. Sometimes it is as a result of practicing certain habits of prayer, or reflection, or worship that somehow, over time, opens us up to the presence of God in new ways. Sometimes there is a beautiful sight that grabs our attention, or a particular strain of music that stirs our heart, or as we hold a newborn baby and breathe in their unique baby smell we are moved in some interior way. We have been created to interact with the world through our five senses, and these message systems can speak to us of the Divine presence.
“God is manifest to us through physical means.”
Really, I see this as the generosity of God. Here we are, physical beings in a physical universe, yet with this divine life within and beyond us and with whom we are seeking to relate. In His kindness, God reveals Himself to us through the very physical realities that surround us.
Have you ever stopped in wonder at the majesty of a sunset? Or been energised by the grandeur of a mountain? Have you ever wanted to remain forever glued to the softness of a baby’s cheek? Or have you been moved with righteous indignation at the offensive stench of a full-to-bursting refugee camp? In all these ways and more, God encounters us in the very physicality of our world.
“Material things may thus become to us signs and symbols of sacred realities as we see God through the material world.”
This is all very well, but are we supposed to just hang around hoping for rainbows or sunsets to strike in us an awareness of God? We wouldn’t get very much done, if that were the case.
Practices to Engage your Senses: Paying Attention
Engaging in something that is physically absorbing – listening, gazing, touching, tasting or inhaling a scent – has the power to hold our attention in the present. Here are some activities you might try:
Sit beside your favourite body of water and listening attentively to the sounds of the water’s ebb and flow. What does the water speak to you about the ways God wants to cleanse and refresh your being?
Choose an instrumental piece of music – any genre will do, so long as you enjoy it – and take time to allow the music to fill you. What emotions that you are currently feeling seem reflected by a particular phrase of the music? How might God be wanting to meet you in that place?
Take time to visit a place, preferably in nature, where you enjoy the view. Sit for a while and absorb the different elements of the landscape before you. What do you see? In what ways do you see the goodness of God communicated to you through this view?
Choose a painting, it could be one with which you are familiar or one that is new to you. You could do an Internet search for paintings relating to a particular Bible story, for example. What do you notice about the way the story is portrayed? What surprises you? In what ways does God direct your attention to Him through this picture?
If you have access to it, you might take a small piece of clay, play dough, or mouldable putty. Warm it in your hands and begin to mould it with your fingers. As you do so, consider the ways God is shaping you. In what ways do you resist His touch? Where in your life are you aware of Him forming you?
Find a close friend or family member in whose trusted presence you feel comfortable and safe. Sit quietly together and simply hold hands. Feel the warmth of the person’s hand, the companionable nature of expressing presence in this way. How might God be inviting you to experience His companionship, loving support, and unobtrusive yet very real presence in this moment?
What is your absolute favourite thing to eat? Chips, sushi, ice cream, pasta – whatever it is, treat yourself to a yummy portion. As you sit to enjoy it, consider the way Jesus called Himself the bread of life. In the same way that the food you’re eating feeds and nourishes your body, so you are fed and nourished by the life of Jesus. In what ways is His life sweet to you? In what ways peppery or hot, almost too much at times? In what ways comforting?
Next time you take communion with your community, take time to taste the elements. Roll them around on your tongue. Consider that just as these elements are metabolised by your body and eventually become part of you, so the life of Christ – broken on the cross and made available to us by the Spirit – is becoming part of your very being.
Slice open a lemon and inhale its clean, citrusy smell. Think of all the goodness that is released into the atmosphere simply by opening up the fruit. What good things are released when you open yourself up to others? Take time to consider the ways God is offering you His cleansing or refreshing.
Next time you pass a place where there is a bad odour, bring to mind those things in your life – perhaps some of your reactions or habit patterns – that are like a ‘bad smell’ in your relationships. How might God be wanting to clean out that part of your life that is difficult for others to be around? Ask Him to make you aware of what it is in you that’s causing the ‘stink!’
At the close of any of these activities, you might ask yourself how you want to respond to what God has shown you, spoken to you, or invited you to. In what ways do you experience resistance to this invitation? In what ways do you feel ready to embrace it?
In these moments of being moved from our mind to our senses, we can come into contact with what is true about us and be brought to a place where we can truly meet God. By responding to these opportunities to ‘wake up,’ we find that our vision of God and of ourselves is renewed. From this place of truth, we are able to engage with God in ways that form and grow us in our walk with Him.
In the meantime read:
Presence and Encounter, The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life by David Benner.
Read more on this topic:
Christine Valters Paintner (2010) Water, Wind, Earth and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements
Ken Gire (2017) Windows of the Soul: Hearing God in the Everyday Moments of Your Life