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Liturgy as a Feast for the Senses

I will be writing a regular weekly article for Patheos on Art & Spirit in the Church. Click the link for this week’s feature, see the links below for previous articles.  It is for the Catholic Gateway, but much of what I write is accessible to an ecumenical audience.

Liturgy as a Feast for the Senses

The Christian imagination and experience of the world are shaped by a God who becomes fully human – who steps into what it means to be flesh with all of its joys and wounds. In the Gospels, we often find the person of Jesus sharing meals, turning water into wine, being baptized with water, and anointed with oil. Everywhere he goes he tells robust stories filled with earthy images of soil and seeds, fig trees, wineskins, salt, sheep, and stones. He was a man fully in touch with his senses and who understood the gifts of our senses as a doorway to a deeper encounter with God through ordinary life. With Jesus, we find not just God’s transcendence and power, but holy immanence and intimacy. This is what the Incarnation is about: the invitation to discover a God whose presence beats at the heart of the world.

We experience this in a profound way as we gather each week for liturgy. In the Catholic Mass there is a sacred invitation to become fully present to each of our senses during the service: through the smell of incense rising and beeswax candles melting; through the sound of church bells ringing, chimes singing, music playing, and the community joining their voices together in song; through the taste of communion bread and wine, which reminds us we are of one body and one blood; through the sight of architecture, the way the building space is designed, the art and banners hung to connect us with liturgical colors and symbols, and images of our faith; and through touch when we extend our hands for the Lord’s Prayer or the kiss of peace. Next time you are at a Catholic liturgy, make it a practice to become fully aware of how each of your senses is being engaged in a given moment. Notice what your sense experience has to teach you about God’s many dimensions and textures.

Art and aesthetic experience is about cultivating our senses so that we might become more in touch with the sacred dimension of the world around us. We begin to see more deeply, hear more profoundly, see, smell, and taste the depth dimension of things. What we do in liturgy is meant to extend beyond Sunday morning – at Mass we are practicing for daily life. We practice discovering how we are connected to one another through sharing a meal, a song, an embrace. We learn to discover the holiness of scent and a sacred way of seeing the world as it really is, beyond surface appearances. Then as we move through our days, we may begin to experience a grace that is palpable, a grace that invites us to say yes with the whole of our being and each one of our senses.

Previous articles on art and spirituality at Patheos:

Art and Spiritual Practice (5/18/2009)

Beauty and Spirituality (6/3/2009)

Pray with Music: Audio Divina (6/4/2009)

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7 Responses

  1. Love the idea of sacred fragrant oils rubbed into the wood of a worship or meditative area. I brought up the idea of incense to someone at our Lutheran church and they thought it would be a big issue with people who are sensitive. I agree with Terri. I’d rather smell essential oils or incense than people who reek of cigarettes or too much cologne. But it is hard to please everyone and have no distractions whatsoever.

  2. Here’s the answer…

    “The walls are rubbed with sacres chrism when the Chapel is dedicated. You can still see the crosses in certain places. However, I used the chrism from last year (since we had a new batch for Easter) and had it rubbed into the wood all through the Chapel, i.e. the door jambs, the pews, the altar, etc. I do not have major concerns about allergies, simply because we always do it and, like incense, there are some who may be uncomfortable, but I think those would be a very small minority of people. I cannot see how eucalyptus scent would be more distracting than normal cologne so many people have.”

    …I know that we have done Holden Evening Prayer and some people cannot come if we use incense. This is a sticky wicket for allergies! I have to say, though, that he must love the Chapel to give it this much care. I think this is a wonderful image in my head of Father J. rubbing down the wood all through the chapel, loving it up!

  3. Thanks Terri and SS, I am also intrigued by the rubbing of fragrance into the walls of the chapel — I have never been in the SU Chapel following this, so would love to know more about how this happens! (and I am one of the folks sensitive to fragrance, but can also see the potential power)

    kigen, you made me smile. :-)

  4. Lovely article about engaging all of the senses. Frankly, I had not spent much time thinking of God in those terms until the exercise at “Awakening the Creative Spirit” in describing how God tastes and smells. Congratulations on the weekly column – impressive, though not surprising that you would take this on. You are a gifted writer who uses the magic of words to transmit the power of God’s presence in the world.

    I was intrigued by Terri’s remark about the walls in the Chapel of St. Ignatius – rubber with what kind of fragrance. I know so many folks are “sensitive” in not a good way to fragrances I’m surprised the chapel “risks” the rubbing:) I would love to know what they rubbed the walls with…..hopefully Terri will see my response here and give me an answer – is this a practice Christine with which you are familiar?

  5. Being a non-Catholic, but a person who spends a lot of time in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, one of the most captivating experiences I have had recently was coming into the Chapel after Easter when they had rubbed fragrance into the walls. It was amazing! Simply adding the scent really awakened the senses to a more complete experience of prayer. In my Methodist church, we focus on the beauty, the music, the word, and the table, but we have lost scent and touch. Much to ponder about this…Thanks!