Ever since Christ invited Doubting Thomas—for whom a vision of the resurrected Son of God was not enough—to put his hands into the visible wounds, Christian faith has engaged with all five senses of the body.
Faith most obviously comes through hearing, as St. Paul first taught us. But in ways subtle and sublime it also is related to each of the four other senses, even the sense of smell and taste.
Hearing from a personal God: Faith, as Scripture tells us, comes through hearing. But why? Why not reading, for example? The encyclical Lumen Fidei (most written by Pope Benedict XVI) points to the story of Abraham as an example. Abraham’s encounter with God, Benedict notes, was marked by hearing a divine voice. This happened in his native city, his new home in the future promised land, and on the mountain where he took Isaac. While it may be lost on modern audiences, in the ancient world this encounter with God through hearing marked the God of the Israelites as a God of the person, rather than a god of place (or one associated with a particular situation). Click here to read more about why faith comes through hearing.
Faith as mystical vision: By faith in Christ, Christ comes to live within us, to dwell within us, as St. Paul writes and Galatians 2 and Ephesians 3. Citing these verses, the encyclical Lumen Fidei (most written by Pope Benedict XVI) says that faith in Christ becomes a sort of mystical seeing. We cannot see God the Father, but Christ does. “The Christian can see with the eyes of Jesus and share in his mind, his filial disposition, because he or she shares in his love, which is the Spirit. In the love of Jesus, we receive in a certain way his vision,” Benedict writes.
Touched through the sacraments: Christ’s ministry of healing often involved a personal touch. Christ did not simply wave his hands over the eyes of the blind man; he rubbed mud into them. The woman who was hemorrhaging was healed by touching His garment. His followers had the opportunity to be touched by Christ, but what about believers today? “By his taking flesh and coming among us, Jesus has touched us, and through the sacraments he continues to touch us even today; transforming our hearts, he unceasingly enables us to acknowledge and acclaim him as the Son of God. In faith, we can touch him and receive the power of his grace,” Benedict writes in Lumen Fidei (co-authored with Pope Francis). Benedict invokes the words of Augustine: To touch him with our hearts: that is what it means to believe.
‘Taste and see’: “O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet: blessed is the man that hopeth in him,” so proclaims Psalm 34:8. If it is through sacraments in general that we are touched by God, it is through the Eucharist that we taste Him. Such at least has been the interpretation of Church Fathers like Sts. Athanasius and Augustine, according to the Haydock Bible Commentary. (Click here to read Augustine’s exposition of this verse.)
Sweet-smelling sanctity: The sense of smell is closely associated with our faith in many ways. At Mass, incense is used as part of our worship. This reflects the words of Scripture. Ephesians 5:2 states, “And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odor of sweetness.” Sweet smells are associated with God for two reasons, as suggested in this verse. First, incense was traditionally identified with sacrifice, with God Incarnate has become for our sakes. Second, it is only fitting that an all-good and loving God would be associated with sweet smells. (Click here to read more about that.)
Why go to all this trouble to demonstrate how the senses are connected to faith? Why does it matter?
The senses are particularly important in Christ’s salvific mission because it is the senses that are prone to lead us into sin, Church Fathers warned. Here’s how St. Ambrose put it:
The eye looks back and leads the mind’s perception astray, the ear hears and turns one’s attention away, a whiff of fragrance hinders thought, a kiss of the mouth introduces guilt, a touch kindles the fire of passion. … Indeed, Adam would not have come down from paradise unless he had been beguiled by pleasure (Flight from the World 1.3, as cited in Scenting Salvation.)
For St. Augustine, who was Ambrose’s disciple, salvation comes by re-orienting the senses away from physical pleasures and towards God. And so, in the Confessions, Augustine could write this way about God:
Too late did I love You, O Fairness, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, were not. You called, and cried aloud, and forced open my deafness. You gleamed and shine, and chase away my blindness. You exhaled odours, and I drew in my breath and do pant after You. I tasted, and do hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace (Chapter 27, emphasis added).
With Augustine then, we can not only long for the beatific vision of God, but perhaps also the sweet fragrance of His presence that awaits the saints in heaven.