Unconscious influences 2
Readings: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16.
We hear the psalmist desperately seeking the Lord, “In thee, O Lord do I seek refuge, let me never be put to shame… Incline thy ear to me, rescue me speedily, be thou a rock of refuge to me, a strong fortress to save me!” (Psalm 31:1-2). But how do we know when God is there. Or if God has heard our prayer?
The obvious answer is through the same means as we know anything, through our five senses. Arguably while God remains unseen, the Holy One is tangible in the exactly the same way as anything else in our life. I know this is a provocative statement, but let me continue.
The Five Senses
Aristotle identified the five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. We are born with these senses and it is how we encounter reality. But do we have a preferred sense? First imagine that travel restrictions have ended. Now imagine the following:
You arrive at your holiday destination. It is a beach resort (perhaps in Australia, perhaps next year in Bali). What is your first reaction? (a) To enjoy the feel of the sand under your feet? Or the warmth of the sun? Of the cool sea breeze on your face? (b) Do you hear the waves breaking? The sound of sea gulls or the rustling of leaves in the wind? (c) Do you enjoy the view of the beach, the blue sea and the movement of people. (d) The smell of the sea or the flowers around? (e) Or do you look for exotic dining with new dishes to try out?
Can you identify a preferred sense through this exercise? Maybe a secondary? There are spiritual implications which we will now explore.
Reflect: Most people seem to have a first memory. What is the sense through which you remember? Is it visual, a distinct sound, a bodily sensation, a smell or a taste? This might provide a clue to your favored sense. Discuss if you are with someone.
God through the Senses
The Bible records the divine human encounter. The assumption is that all the senses are involved: “Hear the word of the Lord” (Isa 1:10), a promise that “The pure in heart … they will see God” (Matt 5:8); “O, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34:8) and in the reading from Peter “for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord” (1 Peter 2:3); the faithful “Spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Cor 2:14). Indeed, the original witnesses to the resurrection testified that “We have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our own hands, concerning the word of life” (I John 1:1).
The expression “spiritual senses” (sensus spiritales) first occurred in the Latin translation of Origen of Alexandria (a church father who died 254AD). Other theologians have emphasized the experience of God through the senses:
Augustine, for example, in his Confessions, “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty [God] at once so ancient and so new! … You called me, you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odor. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace.”
More recently theologians Paul Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley have argued for the continuing relevance of the senses in the theological tradition. However, there is an unresolved tension in relating to a God who is unlike us and inherently mysterious, “We look not at what can be seen but to what cannot be seen” (2 Cor 4:18).
In the middle-ages there was the idea of a spiritual sense. A couple of years ago I saw the beautiful The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries from the Musée de Cluny (which were on exhibition in Australia at the NSW Gallery in Sydney). These glorious 16th-century works illustrate the five senses and allow for a sixth sense, or an overall focus, labelled Mon Seul Désir (my sole desire). This makes for a wonderful work of art but whether we have an additional sense for God is debatable when the clear biblical tradition is that God can meet us through any of the five senses.
The Christian faith has always had an experiential dimension. Over the years people have received visions, revelations, spiritual insight and other communications from the divine realm. John Wesley, who ‘founded’ the Methodist Church, felt his heart “strangely warmed”. This experience reflects touch, but others have experienced God through music, a sermon, a beautiful work of art, the taste of the eucharist or a fellowship meal, or the smell of flowers or incense.
In my experience ordinary believers sometimes have extraordinary experiences. These are often memorable and highly influential in shaping the Christian faith for the individuals involved. While some might label these as mystical experiences or refer to mystics, I would prefer to acknowledge such experiences. They are rarely daily or even weekly or monthly but even if once or twice in a lifetime such experiences can be very significant for our spiritual life.
Usually these are intensely private and rarely, or if ever, talked about. Some believers value a strictly rational approach to the faith, but I think it is foolish to dismiss any aspect of religious experience. Clearly, neither the Bible nor our religious tradition allows this. I’m not saying that religious experience ‘proves’ the existence of God, but simply that many if not most religious people have experiences that are unexplainable to any rational degree.
I remember eight or nine years ago, after a personal crisis I went to communion at All Saints Anglican Church. I was a member there and it was my normal practice to attend every Sunday. I was feeling quite distressed as I went up to the front to kneel before the altar to receive Holy Communion, and once there I was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s acceptance. Deep in my being I knew that God loved me and unreservedly welcomed me [as I am]. There was nothing miraculous about this ‘event’, being purely subjective and in my 50 years as a Christian I could count on one hand anything remotely similar, but I know such rare moments confirm my relationship with God.
I would like to encourage you to pay attention to how God comes to you. Usually, we are wired in different ways and I would suggest that the senses play a part. The popular author Gary Chapman suggested that there were Five Love Languages. These do not directly parallel the five senses but include receiving gifts, spending quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service and physical touch. There is value in Chapman’s insight, that basically we feel loved in different ways, and that this has a potential application to how we are most comfortable in relating to God. Can you identify a love language for relating to God?
Styles of Worship
The implications of a favored sense influences what style of worship will appeal to us. Some will want to hear the Bible preached with no visual embellishment, others desire a strong musical program, or the atmosphere of candles and lead-light windows, to engage in a weekly eucharist and/or the smell of incense or perfumed candles. It is not helpful to think of worship in categories of right or wrong but simply in what comes naturally in relating to God.
It is not clear why we might have a preferred sense for God. I suspect it reflects our earliest experiences, before words or language, and is associated with nurture. This lays a template for relating to God in later life. Understanding this we can better enhance our spiritual life and seek more natural ways to encounter God.
Let’s think together about how we can maximize the insight about our preferred sense for God. Ideally our choice of worship should reflect this, for example many at GUC probably have hearing [participating in music, value of preaching and creative liturgy]. I was at Wesley with its elaborate musical program. Before that I was at All Saints, the church of already mentioned, which has a beautiful sanctuary and has elaborate ritual which is visually appealing.
- Sight you might find church architecture is powerful, and the art tradition of sacred images. Or even more focused is looking at icons. You might try painting an icon, traditionally called writing an icon. I love art and I usually spend some time each day looking at art books (presently Vatican’s collection). I find visual beauty quite nourishing.
- Hearing you might buy a recording of the bible to listen to or sermons as podcasts, or listen to recordings on our church site. I think sacred music would be a must for a believer seeking to deepen a relationship with God from Gregorian chants to contemporary music – whatever is your musical preference! There is of course Bach and Handel somewhere in between.
- Touch is about engaging the body. You might like ‘holy hugs’ at the passing of the peace (when COVID allows). You might like massages but I not sure how to express this as a spiritual discipline [imagine being touched by God?]. One option is to walk a pilgrimage such as the Camino to Spain. I know a UCA minister who walked to Land’s End and threw a stone of past resentments in the water and jumped naked into the ocean as an expression of feeling free before God.
- Smell Incense has been used in worship since the days of the early church, increasingly with the development of the liturgy after Constantine. Creative activities might include arranging the flowers or ‘gardening for God’ or just gardening. Or cooking for church occasions such as the bread for holy communion.
- Taste The communion is a direct taste of the divine through the sacrament. We partake in fellowship meals or drinks together. This is highly valued at GUC with Spice Kids and home fellowship groups.
There is nothing more natural to deepen your relationship with God than doing more of what works for you. It helps to know your preferred sense and then to build on that. Simply accept such a pathway to deepen your spiritual life.
There is a mediaeval map in which “the earth is a flat disc with Jerusalem in the centre. Rome was bigger than Africa and America was not even shown, of course. The heart is that kind of map. The self is in the middle and everything else is out of proportion.” [The Edge of Eternity]. This is equally true of the spiritual life, we need to get to know our own heart and its pathways.
Dr Bruce A. Stevens (PhD Boston University, 1987) was the Wicking Professor of Ageing and Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia (2015-2019). He is an endorsed clinical psychologist who has written ten books, most recently The Storied Self (Fortress Academic, 2018) and Before Belief (Lexington, 2020). He is the supply minister at Gungahlin Uniting Church.
To Read Further
Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to your Mate, (Chicago, Ill.: Northfield Publishing, 1995).
Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley Eds., The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1-2.
R. S. Pine-Coffin, Trans., St Augustine Confessions (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1961), Book 10:27, see 231-32.