“Praying with All Five Senses”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
6 October, 2019
Fifth in a Series of Eight on the Holy Habit of Prayer
Psalm 34:1-5, 8-18, 22
The apostle James, in his letter to an early Christian community, wrote: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. … The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (Jas. 5:13-16)
As Christians, we believe that God loved this creation, and particularly humankind, so much that the Creator chose to become one of us, so that divine love might become that much more complete, so that we could understand each other more profoundly. That entailed humbling infinite power, and accepting the limitations of human flesh. In so doing, God sanctified the human experience. Athanasius of Alexandria, a fourth-century Church Father, famously said, “God became man so that man could become like God.”
In Mark 12:30, Jesus says the first of the two most important commandments is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength is also expressed in our private and devotional prayers. And by paying attention to, and mindfully employing, the senses we have can draw us deeper into our prayerful expression and experience of loving God fully. So, this morning, we’re going to explore a variety of tools that can help us to use our senses more fully, so that we might become the glory of God, more fully alive and aware as we make all our life an expression of prayer.
Numerous times throughout the gospel accounts, we hear Jesus say, “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!”
- Use a singing bowl to start a time of meditation; listen to how the sound reverberates into silence, and also how your mind can “hear” the echo. Can this be instructive about God’s voice within us? (Also notice how the reverberations when you strike the bowl resonate with your whole body.)
- Sit and listen attentively to a piece of music, with an open heart to where you hear God speaking in or through the music. Pay attention to how the music moves and reverberates in your entire body: the bass line, the treble notes.
- Take a walk in the woods, or sit outside and listen attentively to “the music of the spheres”: What do you hear? Where do you hear God (or God’s creation) singing or speaking?
In Matthew 6:22, Jesus says, “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Like many things that Jesus said, this observation is about more than just eyesight. The presence or absence of light in a person also refers to the presence or absence of goodness in that individual; it’s an invitation for us to search out the things that help us to bring spiritual light and wholeness to bear on our own souls, and on the world around us.
But still, our eyes are critical instruments through which we see, and begin understand the deeper wisdom of spiritual vision. Our eyes can help us to notice the things of God if we focus, or they can actually draw our attention away from soul-edifying activities if we let them. In prayer, as we try to keep our minds trained on the object of our devotion (God), and on the subjects of our concern or gratitude, it can help to look at things. For example:
- Use a picture to help you pray: hold an image of someone or someplace in your hands as you express your prayers aloud or silently.
- Very early in the Reformed tradition, icons and images were frowned upon as aids to prayer—the belief was that they too often became the object of prayer, and there was some concern that they would become idols, false representations of God, the only proper object of our prayers. But there’s been a renewed recognition in the stories that pictures can tell, and the ways that praying with icons or images can actually help us to stay focused on God, as well as remembering what it is that we’re praying for and why.
- Instead of closing your eyes in prayer, try opening them wide and noticing where you might see God’s handiwork or evidence of God’s spirit present, or at work, around you.
- Practice looking for evidence of God’s presence in the face of other people—what does that look like? How does it appear?
In Exodus, as God is instructing the people of Israel about how to set up their temple for worship, there are numerous instructions about using incense, and fragrant oils for anointing. The Psalmist says, in Psalm 141:2 “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” The sense of smell has always been important to the people of God, because it is such a powerful feature of memory.
Think, for a moment, about some of the most memorable places you’ve been, or beloved people. I bet that as you recall that place, there’s a memory of the smell associated with it. Our sense of smell is a gift that can help draw us into a deeper mindfulness and awareness of our connection to God and to the rest of life—even life that is no longer with us.
- Use a drop of scented oil, or light a scented candle or a bit of incense at the beginning of a time of prayer. Pay attention to the way the fragrance hits your nasal passages, and possibly affects your awareness of other senses as it travels. How does paying attention to your breathing as you notice the smell help you to go deeper in your awareness of God’s presence and peace?
- Notice the variety of fragrances as you take a walk in the woods or around your neighborhood. Which scents help you to feel more closely attuned to God? Do any distract you, trouble you, or make you feel disconnected? Try to explore why the different fragrances have various effects on your mind and spirit.
Our first Scripture lesson this morning encourages us to “Taste and see that the Lord is good…” Tasting is not always just something we do with our tongue. I’m sure you’re aware of how closely intertwined the senses of taste and smell are—some say that 80% or more of taste comes from our ability to smell. Actually, the neurology of it is a bit more complicated than that, but at the very least, it’s a helpful reminder in our praying that things are connected; the functioning of one sense can strengthen the experience of another, which seems like a good metaphor for life in community—the ways that our different perspectives and gifts all work together to strengthen each other.
How can our prayers be improved by our prayers? How can we “taste and see the goodness of God”?
- Take a moment before each meal to pause and connect with God in prayer. Simply become aware in that that God is with you, nourishing your body and your soul.
- Offer a brief prayer of gratitude for that which nourishes you, for the variety of “flavors” in your day—both cuisine-related and metaphorical.
- As you eat or drink, take a moment to notice the variety of flavors in a single mouthful: how does the flavor change with a change in the texture, or as it moves around in your mouth? How might this help you think about a changing experience of God’s activity in your life or the world?
- This morning, on which we’re observing World Communion Sunday with churches across the planet, we will taste some very special communion bread, made by the hands of our Sunday School children. The lessons they learned in the past couple of weeks were teaching them about how the sacrament of communion connects us as people of faith, and how it connects us to the love and sacrifice God-in-the-flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, made for all of us.In our communion service, we are always reminded of Jesus’ words as he broke the bread and shared the cup: “Take and eat: this is my body which is broken for you. Likewise, drink this cup, to remind you of my blood, which was willingly spilled as a witness of my love for humankind.”Unlike our Catholic and Lutheran siblings in faith, in the Reformed tradition we don’t necessarily believe that the bread transforms to actually become the body of Christ, nor the juice or wine to literally become the blood. We are satisfied with the symbolism we believe Christ intended in each. But it’s significant that we ingest them, that we taste them—because there is something about “tasting” the sacrifice, contemplating how allowing it to nourish us, to give us strength, is a spiritual exercise.
Today, as we are smell and taste freshly-baked bread made by our Sunday School youth as part of our communion service, as we remember the world-wide body of Christ celebrating the eucharist together on World Communion Sunday, we can taste and see that the Lord is good.
The gospel accounts are full of instances of Jesus reaching out and touching people, especially those whom others backed away from. His touch was healing, restorative. Becoming aware of the many things we touch, or refrain from touching, across the day can help to deepen our prayerfulness. And, because the sense of touch so profoundly informs our understanding of the material world around us, it can help to focus our attention as we pray.
- Notice what you touch across the day; notice when you are touched by others. Do you feel energy flowing to or from yourself or others when that connection happens? What might this communicate about your experience of the presence (or absence) of God?
- Use prayer beads, which can help you to stay focused on the activity of prayer by providing a manual reminder of what you have prayed for and what you intend to remember in prayer. They can help to focus or re-focus our attention, when there are many things on our mind.
- Thankfulness bead string: We are led deeper into prayer as we progress through the beads. First, a large bead, which invites us to pay attention to God our Creator. Then, there are three medium-sized beads—these can remind us to pray for three different people who touch our lives, or that are on our minds. Finally, there are six small beads, which can remind us to pray for six different things or events or circumstances that we’d like to entrust to God’s caring attention.
Or, Hold another object (e.g., a crocheted prayer square, a small wooden cross, a prayer stone, a prayer block with the focus of prayer written on it, etc.) in your hands that helps to keep you focused, or can return your focus to the activity of prayer when thoughts naturally become distracted.
- Wrap yourself in a prayer shawl, to feel the warmth of an embrace by God, but also the reminder to pray for others.
All of these objects and aids to our prayer help us to engage all five of our senses, and can draw us into a deeper awareness of God’s constant presence with us. As we practice paying attention to our sense of smell, for example, or our sense of sight, during our prayers, we will very likely find ourselves more closely attuned at other points during the day to what we’re smelling or seeing, hearing or tasting or touching. And that can prompt us, even in the midst of a day full of countless distractions, to suddenly be attentive to God greeting us in ordinary moments.
Thank God for the five senses that help us to feel more fully alive, and may God bless us as we practice paying closer attention with each of them during our prayer, so that our prayers might become more constant and attentive in every moment of every day. Amen.