A Sense of God

As infants, prior to the coming of speech, we communicate with sounds, gestures and facial expressions. Long before we can speak to our mothers, fathers or older siblings, we fall in love with them. It is a tactile love, based upon the senses of touch, hearing, smelling and seeing. What if this is how we fall in love with God?

These sorts of tactile images abound in Scripture, in which the physical senses are used to describe our relationship with God. Theologians refer to these descriptions as “spiritual senses.” Spiritual senses are not always used in the Bible as a metaphor, they argue, but analogically as a way to describe how we discern the presence of God, actual spiritual senses by which we communicate and enter into relationship with God.

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In the modern period Augustin-Francois Poulain, S.J., in The Graces of Interior Prayer, stated that “the words to see God, to hear and to touch him are not mere metaphors. They express something more: some close analogy” (p. 90). Poulain would argue that there are passages in the Bible where the senses that touch, taste, hear, smell and see God are not merely metaphors, but actually describe a sensory relationship with God, albeit spiritual. So, when the psalmist asks us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” there is a spiritual sense to which the image refers that is not exhausted by a metaphor that evokes a remembrance of a wonderful meal or even physical participation in the eucharistic feast.

But the connection between the physical senses and the spiritual senses is always present, for the physical senses are the means by which we become sensitive to spiritual realities and grounded in the reality of God’s presence. The story of Elijah in the First Book of Kings brings to bear these physical and spiritual senses, for Elijah is running from physical danger, a threat to his life by Jezebel, to Mount Horeb, the place where Moses experienced the theophany, the presence of God. It is there that Elijah will experience God’s presence in the silence, hear God’s voice and speak with him.

Before arriving at Mount Horeb, though, Elijah “asked that he might die,” because of the threats on his life and the belief that he had failed at his task. Instead, as Elijah was sleeping an angel “touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’” Twice the angel did this before Elijah ate the cake and the water supplied for him by God’s messenger. It was only after this physical sustenance that Elijah traveled 40 days and 40 nights to receive the revelation of God, to experience the presence of the divine.

These mystical experiences might seem merely a product of ancient imagination or to be linked to holy figures of the past, but it seems that the key to encountering God in our own lives is to be able to look beyond the physical realities, essential not only to our bodies but to our growth as spiritual beings, and to feel God’s presence. To become awakened to the reality of the spiritual senses in our lives is to discern God among us.

In the Letter to the Ephesians, the author asks that we “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” This is the only place in all of the New Testament where we are asked to imitate God; this is probably due to the focus in Ephesians on God as father. Children in antiquity were to form themselves in the image of their father. This, of course, had its practical realities; but more significantly, imitation had spiritual dimensions. How are we to imitate God unless we have come to know God intimately, as a child knows his or her parents?

Imitation of God is grounded in love of the Father who gave his Son for us as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” and as “the bread that came down from heaven.” But to smell the fragrant offering and to taste the heavenly bread propels us to senses beyond the physical. These senses offer up for us a world in which we are able to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

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Bruce Snowden
2 years 9 months ago
Touching, Hearing, Seeing, Smelling. By means of sensory stimulation “Long before babies can talk, they fall in love,” Wow! Made in the image and likeness of God, babies obviously demonstrate the fundamental Genetic of the Godhead, the ability to LOVE. We have His Word, “God is Love!” Parenting, or being around babies validates this I, a Dad to three, and Granddad to seven, know! This is one reason why traditional marriage is important – the baby gets to know the differences in Touch, Sight, Hearing, Scent, between Mom and Dad, getting to know early on differences in masculinity and femininity, leading the baby into a correct personal identity. It’s wonderful to appreciate that God is the source of sensory stimulation, also its beneficiary and user rooted in Love. Through TOUCHING, HEARING, SEEING, SMELLING, God is known and the one who gets to know God, gets healed, physically, psychologically, spiritually according to need. It ‘irritates” God to find anyone with an open, or hidden sore and he aches to heal! Even through smelling? Once I had an “open sore” not physical, and got healed by God’s smell, but I don’t want to get into the nature of my healing here. Yes! God’s “smell” heals. I suggest one Redemptive way is through the scent of Jesus’ Precious Blood running down his face and around his olfactory ability, assuredly healing in its scent and flow. His Word assures, “By his wounds we are healed.” The kind of wounds he endured bleed a lot. I also find sensory stimulation a very good way to pray without words which often get in the way of the conversation and the response. God, like Baskin Robbins Ice Cream comes in many flavors. If you pick up the “ice cream” Scent of God you’ll know it. It exhilarates! It should be mentioned that sometimes the "smell" of God is not pleasant. Once after giving a homeless man a little money, he embraced me with loving thanks. He gave me all he had to give, including his body odor which clung to my clothing. As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once said, "Sometimes God comes distressingly disguised!" Concluding, for me I often find God in the smell of incense in Church, the smell of burning candle wax at the altar, or in the smell of Eucharistic wine, flashing me back to the Upper Room. Strange as it may seem the smell of wine even at home, or in a restaurant at Dinner, pulls me reflectively in a Eucharistic direction. I touch, hear, see God best of all, through the sense of smell. And I like it. Truly a Grace, bringing to mind Augustine’s well known words, “Everything is Grace!" I’m sure millions of others are equally blessed, finding their sense of God.
Winifred Holloway
2 years 10 months ago
I so appreciate your focus on our senses as a pathway to seeing, feeling, connecting with spiritual realities. I've been a Hospice volunteer for many years. Often, especially with people of advanced age who have hearing, sight and cognitive deficits, the only way to connect one's concern and love is through touch. Hugging, massaging, soothing sounds. The tactile, especially, is paramount. The frailty and utter dependence that the very old and very ill experience and the anxiety and fear that it generates can be assuaged by a loving, tender touch, just as it is for infants.
Charles McNamee
2 years 9 months ago
Our thinking (concepts) come from sensory experiences. We cannot therefore have an "adequate" concept of God and I don't believe that prayer requires a previous concept of God, but belief. So many seem to be waiting until they can "know" or "understand" God before they can believe in God. We often spent most of our lives searching for and expecting God to come to us from outside ourselves. On the contrary, just as the entire cosmos came into existence from a point of no dimensions, so too God, the Creator of space and time will come to us and is within us as a point of no dimensions. Jesus' opening statement, i.e., his "keynote address" [Mk. 1:15-16] is: "The present moment is the right time. Change the way you think for the Kingdom of God is within you. Believe THIS 'good news'." Thus, our prayer from our inner room can be one of not "seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting; nor of imagining nor conceiving", but of absolute certainty of believing the witness of Jesus.The knowledge that God likewise indwells all others leads us to love of neighbour, even of enemy, as being an act of love to God.

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