Dearest monks and artists,
The Catholic Mass, which is my own home tradition, is often described as “smells and bells.” A full liturgy will often meet and inspire every one of our senses: the scent of incense rising, bells ringing, stained glass windows, singing songs, embracing another at the kiss of peace, eating the bread and drinking wine.
I have always loved the Catholic idea of sacramentality, which means that physical things participate in and reveal the presence of the holy. The liturgy with all of its sensual dimensions is sacramental, the marriage union between two lovers is sacramental, the holy oil of anointing used in healing is sacramental, this bread and wine become flesh and blood is sacramental.
And then there are of course the more ordinary everyday sacraments. The sacramentality of our own flesh which allows us to be present in this world and receive its gifts through our senses.
If we ponder the monastery setting, we might imagine the soaring arches of the cloisters, the fragrant garden in the center providing herbs and medicine for healing and a taste of Eden in their midst, and the songs rising at the Hours for prayer. There is a profound honoring of the way these sensual delights can bring us closer to God.
To have a sacramental spirituality is to honor that our senses are doorways into the holy. When we bring ourselves intentionally to an experience and let ourselves receive it through our senses, the richness of it and the multi-dimensionality of it shimmers forth.
There is even a tradition in Christian spirituality of what are called the “spiritual senses.” The senses were seen as so essential to receiving the gift of the sacred in the world, that there was believed to be parallel interior senses to the exterior ones. There was spiritual vision which was the ability to see God beneath the surface of things. There was spiritual hearing which was the capacity to hear God underneath the noises and distractions. Each sense, including taste, smell, and touch, were imagined as having these inner counterparts, and when cultivated, offered us the ability to encounter God in the flesh and blood reality of the world.
The root of the word savor comes from the Latin word saporem which means to taste and is also the root of sapient which is the word for wisdom. Another definition I love is "to give oneself over to the enjoyment of something." When I give myself over to the experience of savoring, wisdom emerges. Savoring calls for a kind of surrender. We have all kinds of stories in our minds about why we perhaps shouldn’t give ourselves over to enjoyment, whether out of guilt or shame or a sense of fear out of what might happen. Yet we are called to yield to the goodness of life, to bask in it. It is an affirmation and celebration of God’s creation and an echo of “that’s good” from Genesis.
Savoring calls me to slowness: I can't savor quickly.
Savoring calls me to spaciousness: I can't savor everything at once.
Savoring calls me to mindfulness: I can't savor without being fully present.
It also calls for a fierce and wise discernment about how I spend my time and energy. Now that I know deep in my bones the limits of my life breaths, how do I choose to spend those dazzling hours? What are the experiences ripening within me that long for exploration? Do I want to waste my time skating on the surface of things, in a breathless rush to get everything done when all I need is here in this moment?
There is also a seasonal quality to savoring – this season, what is right before me, right now, is to be savored. It will rise and fall, come into fullness and then slip away. When I savor I pay attention to all the moments of that experience without trying to change it.
And finally, there is a tremendous sweetness to this open-hearted way of being in the world. Everything becomes grace because I recognize it could all be different, it could all be gone. Rather than grasp at how I think this moment should be, I savor the way things are.
(excerpted and adapted from The Wisdom of the Body – we will be offering an online companion retreat to this book in the new year, details at this link)
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner