The incarnate God is a potent embodiment of what I think of as the truth about the human lot: that we are mixed, flesh, blood, spirit, mind—and that the holy is inseparable, not only from matter, but from the narrative of our lives.—Mary Gordon
I have never outgrown my delight in smelling coffee brewing first thing in the morning. Wherever I am, at home or traveling, there is something about that earthy aroma that makes me smile. As I breathe it in, memories rush in: sunrise camping at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, a loved one holding a mug with steam gently rising while I snuggle in my blanket, the early evening streets of Istanbul. The images and sensations are never-ending as the fragrance brings the whole world into me.
The same is true for all five of our senses. Each one awakens me to an expanded world; each sense broadens the depth and texture of life. I am more open and alive to myself, more alive to my world and curious to what subtle invitations await as each sense is activated every moment. The senses draw my focus to my aliveness and to my attentiveness for all that life is. They invite me to live more fully, more engaged with all the beauty, joy, and suffering that is ever-present. This is how I long to live life. This is how I long to know the divine—real, attentive, and authentic—through my senses.
The teaching of our “spiritual senses” is an ancient tradition, dating back to the Desert Fathers, that describes the experiences we have as we awaken, as we become more attentive, opening to oneness. Many religions and faith traditions think of God as unchanging, static, an abstract energy, principle, or presence of some kind. And while I believe this is true, I think it doesn’t go far enough because Spirit is dynamically at work too.
So yes, for me, I need to remember God is always present and changeless; yet what doesn’t change is that Spirit is always changing, always offering this oneness in different and new ways—through the senses. It’s my job to be looking for it, and to harness the power of Spirit so that I might unleash it. The spiritual senses are analogies for the physical senses. According to Fr. Thomas Keating they are sacred symbols that harness this power, inviting me into communion, into oneness, over and over.
Prayer is a foundational practice that brings me into relationship with the divine, spirit, the Christ, God, whatever you call it, through the senses. It is the practice through which God insinuates itself into my awareness, and continues to unfold and express as my spiritual attentiveness expands.
Fr. Thomas Keating said, “The first experience of God in mysticism or as contemplative prayer is analogous to perfume. You smell what you smell. If roses are there, you smell them; if God is there, you enjoy it. But if you reflect on the experience, that usually diminishes it. So you let it come and you let it go and don't get attached to it.”
The activity of prayer effuses a trail of the most luxurious perfume, which I know as the presence of the holy. Smell is one of our external senses, that quickly attracts us to something or repels us. The spiritual sense of smell comes alive as our inner attraction for prayer and the Silence, to be still and wait to be drawn into oneness with loving attention. It’s not that we are going to physically smell an aroma of Spirit, but rather it’s as if the divine perfume is an irresistible and inescapable attraction to our encounter with our Source.
We long to know and belong with God, real, attentive, and authentic. We experience the sweetness of this attraction as though Spirit were that delicious fragrance, like morning coffee, fresh flowers, or an ocean breeze, arising from within us and around us.
Like pleasurable aromas to our external sense of smell, we are attracted to that inner experience of grace, to the center of our being. As soon as we release blocks that keep the smell of the divine hidden from us during our ordinary life, it instantly slips through the cracks of our heart and a hint of the sweetness of Spirit is experienced. The divine perfume is an attraction to something within we had not known before, at least not in this way. It calls forth images and sensations that flow as its fragrance brings the whole world into me.
And so it is with prayer. The attraction for prayer perseveres regardless of our actual time in prayer, whether it has become boring, stagnant, nonexistent, or faithful, silent and mysteriously anointing. We yearn for the practice of prayer, for that communion, in order to know the fragrance of that divine perfume that is always permeating our whole life.
Reflections this week:
- Take a few minutes, close your eyes and relax. Where do you most often sense God's presence?
- What scents come to mind?
- How do those scents make known the presence of the divine?
- What scents and fragrances point to what is holy for you?
- As you take a deep breath through your nose, what do you smell soulfully that reminds you that you are the Divine in expression? That you are the holy one?
- With every deep breath in today, let it be a reminder of being more open and alive, to knowing God as real, authentic, and attentive.