In a new collection of essays in honour of David Ford, The Vocation of Theology (check it out here), Sarah Coakley offers some fascinating reflections on how we might think of knowing God through the liturgy.
Holistic worship should be multi-sensory, appealing not merely to the ears—through songs and sermons—but to the eyes, to touch, to taste, to smell. Coakley has suggested that Christian liturgical practices are a “socially mediated, bodily enacted, sensually attuned” means of knowing Christ.
[W]hat sort of epistemological apparatus is involved in this process of liturgical response and growth in intimacy with Christ? Clearly the traditional mental faculties (intellect, will, memory) are actively involved in liturgical performance, and the intellect’s significance in relation to propositional theological truth is self-evident. But what of the distinctly sensual dimensions of liturgy—do these not play some vital part in the growth in responsiveness to Christ’s relational presence in intimacy, such as we have discussed? And do they not in some sense in turn inform our intellectual and affective responses?
Coakley argues that the physical sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell are related to the spiritual senses such that material sensation can, if appropriately shaped over time, increasingly mediate spiritual perception. Gregory of Nyssa in On the Soul and the Resurrection, “actually makes explicit the possibility of training the gross physical senses so that they may come to anticipate something of the capacities of the resurrection body, and so not only sense Christ himself, but actually sense as he senses: ‘by the very operation of our senses,’ says Macrina, Gregory’s sister and mentor in the dialogue, ‘we are led to conceive of that reality and intelligence which surpasses the senses.’” In other words, one perceives God, the truth of God, not merely through the cognitive content of the words of the liturgy and sermon but also through the sight of the stained glass windows, the carved stonework, the candles, the colorful banners, the icons, the ritual movements of the clergy around the sacred space of the building, through the smell of the incense, through the sounds of the music and bells and divine words, through the touch and taste of the bread and wine.
“[A]s John Chrysostom put it in the patristic era, it is all a matter of making ‘the unseen visible from the seen,’ a matter of training the bodily senses in attunement with Christ’s presence. In the wonderful words of Cyril of Jerusalem on the physical reception of the eucharist, ‘Do not have your wrists extended or your fingers spread, but making your left hand a throne for the right, for it is about to receive a King, and cupping your palm, receive the body of Christ.’”