Every Sense Engaged

Sunday, 30 May 2010

When I was in seminary, I took a course in Worship from a delightful elderly, almost elfin man who was Dean of the Chapel.

In one session, he told us about one of his early experiences attending a Catholic Mass with a friend. As they were leaving, he said he asked his friend what he got out of Catholic worship that made it so meaningful.

His friend said, “Every sense is engaged.” Smell (incense, lit candles), taste (the Eucharist itself), touch, hearing, sight – all are engaged.

After all these years, I don’t remember much about the rest of that class in Worship. But I never will forget that observation: every sense engaged.

Nearly 40 years later, I am worshiping with an Orthodox Church in America congregation in the Chicago area. And now more than ever, I keep hearing those words from decades ago: every sense engaged.

Of course, there are the usual five senses that I ticked off above, and largely for the same reasons. But as my pilgrimage into Orthodoxy lengthens and deepens at the same time, I find that truth is far larger than first suspected.

TIME: I look around at not only the icons, but the wall murals and even haunting artwork on various pillars in the worship space … and I am confronted with a powerful sense of the presence of the past. I can’t overstate this. All my P.O. (Pre-Orthodox) life I have been “haunted” by really old black-and-white photographs, ancient tintypes includes, featuring men with walrus moustaches and archaic hats, women with fantastic billowy dresses, everyone with staring – and sometimes even completely blank – eyes. Ancient … and yet somehow here, now. as well.

Of course I kept that to myself, rarely if ever hearing a familiar echo of the sense among friends, in books or cinema or any other reliable “source.” I never understood to what that haunted sense of the past as present was leading me, and in fact assumed it was just some archaic and useless appendage of memory from earliest childhood.

Now I know. I know the “haunting” sense of time was leading me to the Tradition, to the ancients in the faith who are my – our – contemporaries nonetheless. Somehow when I stare back at the staring women and men on the wall murals and pillar paintings at worship, I am staring back at people who see me. Not from or “through” the building walls, of course, but from or through that mystical Reality we call the Communion of Saints … the ancient Church worshiping right alongside us.

SPACE: somehow, for me, Orthodoxy is enormous … boundless. I now dwell, in my spirit, in an immeasurable space I always “sensed,” “intuited” was there, somehow, somewhere … but, like my haunted sense of time, I wrote it off. Early early childhood memories … change of houses, maybe, vast new room (vast to a small child, of course; our houses were always tiny, wood frame affairs). Early memories, maybe, simply of being outdoors … at a lake, in the woods, a vast black sky salted thickly with stars going on and on and on (somehow, even as a child, I knew they did).

Within that space, I came to know Jesus … but He, too, was limited in so many ways (as He was presented, I hasten to add, not as He is). Above all, His saving work was limited to human beings. My pet dog who got poisoned when each of us was just a put didn’t matter to Him, I thought. The caterpillar I accidentally cut in half when I was trimming grass in the back yard didn’t matter to Him, even though it deeply shocked and saddened me. The star-choked heavens every night, from which I still believe – no, I know – I first heard the “music of the spheres” (a vast, airy, distant choral beauty somehow coming exquisitely, slowly ever closer through the eons) … He wasn’t at all concerned with that jaw-dropping beauty, that immeasurable and inconceivable space. That was pagan stuff. I needed my soul saved instead.

Above all, I figured, He ignored -- maybe even disdained -- what to me were vital spiritual experiences: the time a bush became “transparent” to me, to its sacred depths … the times here and there I felt a profound “kinship” with a simple animal, a dog or bird or frog, as though somehow we were all mindfully, consciously part of the same reality … the time the scent of honeysuckle at twilight sent me reeling into depths, first, of unaccountable sadness … and, two or three days later, realizing that the “sadness” was a necessary “layer” through which one had to go to enter the underlying Glory, the fundament of Joy. He didn’t care for that. If I tried to explain it to other Christians, they looked blank, looked away, some of them (I came to realize later) probably even muttering, or at least, in their own churches, beginning to learn to mutter, “heretic.”

For many years, only the Buddha – above all in his initial “Flower Sermon” (where he held up a flower before his students and proceeded to say … nothing … until finally one, his cousin Ananda, became enlightened) – spoke to that. To this very day, in grateful appreciation to God for allowing me to learn from the Buddha, I still refer to my Forerunner for Messiah as “John the Buddhist.”

In time, of course, I learned that in Orthodoxy, Jesus is Savior of the cosmos, including everything and everyone in it. Even me, I reckon; even me. And if I read Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément correctly – and I think I do – then the fact the Spirit is “everywhere present and filleth all things” makes of this very cosmos a sacrament (means of communion with God), indeed make it church. The proper function of all created things, said Dr. Clément, is to worship. (I am drawing from multiple sources here, including Dr. Clément as well as Alexander Schmemann and the Fathers they each quote.)

Those are complex, confounding senses of things. And there are others, but these two – Time, and Space – are enough to make my point, which is:

In Orthodoxy, and especially in the Divine Liturgy, every sense, including these mysterious and mystical senses of Time and Space, are engaged.

And the Lord Jesus, far from disdaining my own sputtering but authentic early spirituality, has invited it Home.

Glory to God!


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