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Spiritual Temperaments – Experiencing the Divine through the Senses (2 of 9)

April 14, 2010
 
 
‘Sensate(s)…want to be lost in the awe, beauty, and splendour of God. They are drawn particularly to the liturgical, the majestic, the grand. When sensate people worship, they want to be filled with sights, sounds, and smells that overwhelm them. Incense, intricate architecture, classical music, and formal language send their hearts soaring.’
 Sacred Pathways – Gary Thomas, P.23
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A Mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator (Creator of All) from the Hagia Sopia Constantinople

 

 Thomas’ second group of people  are ‘sensates’.  These people find it first and foremost easiest to relate to the transcendent through the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Religious Traditions across the world have used practices which communicate through all of the senses, a vivid example being Hindu worship of Indian deities, which often involves fire, water, food, flowers, pictures and incense. Western culture, however, especially in Northern Europe has over the centuries  turned its back on sensuous practices for a more austere and bland kind of religion.  This development was firstly influenced by the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of Roman Catholic rituals and iconography in the sixteenth century, in favour of a religion based solely on the ‘Word of God’, i.e.  the preaching and singing of the Bible. Furthermore, it was also shaped by the industrial revolution and a modernistic emphasis on proving the rightness of ideas purely through rational argument. Even today many non-Conformist church buildings and services are very minimalistic and with little decoration. 

Yet, a very sensuous kind of worship in European culture has always been evident in the Eastern Orthodox church,where ornate architecture and vivid, stylised icons, combine with ritualistic liturgies and practices such as the burning of incense, lighting of candles, kissing of icons and annointing with oil.

 

Lighting a candle can be a special form of prayer

 

The above photograph depicts a scene from a Bulgarian Orthodox church, but it reminds me of my years spent liiving, studying and working in Romania. In every Orthodox church I visited in Romania there is a place to remember friends, family and hurting people by lighting a candle. When I was far away from home it felt to me like a powerful and touching way of praying for my distant relatives and friends. Sometimes when it was difficult to pray in long sentences, the gesture of lighting a candle in the darkness seemed to speak much more clearly and profoundly to God and to my soul than I could with mere words.

 

Thomas writes in his book Sacred Pathways (pages 51-61) that he percieves Dutch Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen to be a sensate Christian. He is struck by Nouwen’s description of his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – described in his book by the same title. Nouwen writes how he was visiting a friend after a busy and exhausting lecture tour. While sitting in his friend’s office he was taken aback by a poster of  Rembrandt’s painting on the wall. Nouwen describes how at that point in time the painting communicated to him deeply exactly what he felt that he needed. Simply, to kneel in front of a Father God and be embraced. Moved by the encounter with the picture, Nouwen then set about trying to arrange a visit to Moscow, where The Return of the Prodigal Son is exhibited, to see the painting at first hand.

 

For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' Luke 15:24

 

Rembrandt’s painting has a very sensuous presence. Painted in rich colours, subtle tones and hues, with dim lighting surrounded by deep shadows. A blood red robed elderly Father gently envelopes the destitute son barely covered in rags, as other characters from the story and the Gospels look on. As viewers we might take in some of the senses involved in this picture. Touch especially, is winsomely communicated. The softness of the Father’s luxurious clothing, the human, non-threatening warmth of  both Father and Son’s  reunion embrace. Perhaps, we might also imagine the scene effecting our sense of smell as the woody fragrant spices the Father is wearing and the unpleasant reeking of the son -unwashed and unclean, having worked in a farm feeding pigs, blend together in a very human scene of  a wealthy father welcoming a poor son. At the same time sight is obviously involved. The lighting is intimate, bathing the scene of familial reconciliation in gentle amber light while all around is in darkness and shadow.

If a painting such as the one above and traditional religious devotion inspires you then you may well be a Sensate. Thomas asks the following questions (page 66). Marking each question 1 to 5, with five being very true and one being not true at all.

  1. I feel closest to God when I’m in a church that allows my senses to come alive – when I can see, smell, hear and almost taste his majesty.
  2. I enjoy attending a “high church” service with incense and formal Communion or Eucharist.
  3. I’d have a difficult time worshipping in a church building that is plain and lacks a sense of awe or majesty. Beauty is very important to me, and I have a difficult time worshipping though second-rate Christian art or music.
  4. The words sesnsuous, colourful and aromatic are very appealing to me.
  5. I would find a book called Beauty and the Transcendent interesting to read.
  6. I would like to explore prayer through drawing, art and music.

 A high score between 15 and 30 would indicate that you have a disposition oriented towards experiencing the world and God through the five senses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One comment

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