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.
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.”