Published on February 1st, 2012 | by Nathaniel Gotcher1
Carnational Musings: Beauty of the Senses
Would you rather be deaf or blind?
Would you rather go a week without tasting anything or a week without facebook? (Seriously, that was a study. The results are too depressing to link to..)
We’re really dependent on our senses. I know it’s kind of a silly thing to say, but I’m pretty sure we take it for granted. For instance:
Right now, I can feel each smooth white key of my macbook while my eyes are burning from exhaustion after a long weekend of studio work. Although I am wearing headphones, I am no longer listening to music. I’m not sure why, but the sounds of the Roman urbanites are clearly audible through them. I can still taste the somewhat bland carbonara sauce I made for dinner tonight and the toast with extra virgin olive oil, Fragrant edition. The room smells like paper and graphite and everywhere around me, people are passing by, some drunk, some on their way to it.
I could describe everything in detail, but it might get long and boring. There’s a reason why our mind can only focus on certain things at a time. The amazing this is, though, we’re always using all our senses at once. They inform our mind of the qualities of our environment so that we are able to make informed decisions about how to respond. A couple of recent posts by prominent bloggers have mentioned the disconnect between the mind and the body that was pushed by certain well known modern philosophers. The use of the senses, however, show that this disconnect is a ridiculous notion. Certain other philosophers of a more ancient or medieval stripe asserted that we only have thoughts insofar as we have experiences. Now whether or not this is true (or I’m giving them a fair reading…and believe me, I’m rusty on Philosophy. So sue me.), it is readily apparent that in our lives, the senses have a huge impact on what we think about, reflect on and remember.
I would wager even that it is through our senses that we are able to recognize our personal identity. If we were born without any senses, we would have no experience of anything. We would not have visual memory, no audial memory, no tactile memory, no taste, no smell–we would be living in darkness and not even know what “dark” meant. If we were to lose them all right now, what would we think? Would we be able to communicate? We would not be able to tell the difference between swinging our arms and just lying still. We would not be able to tell if we were in our own house or in a hospital bed. We would be desperate to express ourselves and frustrated at being unable to know if we were able to or not.
People often identify with a handicap of the senses. There are those who are deaf or blind who have their own language, their own way of approaching life. What this tends to say to me is that the integration of the senses is important. The ability to use them all is a huge gift which we can not take for granted. We can see from the deaf how important being able to see someone is for communication. It is not enough to hear someone speak. For the complete experience, one must be with them to see them, their body language, their lips move. We can see from the blind how important being able to hear is for an experience is. Not only can we understand someone’s communication better from their tone of voice and inflection, but the noises of our environment can tell us so much about the lives we lead.
I started out with a description of my environment. I am, as many of you know, an architecture student and as such, I have tried to foster a keen awareness of my surroundings. You might think that the visual is what is important, and it is. However, it is only through the use of all the sense (ok, tasting only in certain circumstances, and no I’m not talking about the Witch’s House from Hansel and Gretel) that we are able to understand and appreciate our surroundings fully. Imagine walking into a baroque church in the middle of the city center of Rome (Ok, yes, I do this all the time, I know). You see the stone façade, blue grey, cool to the touch, strong, stone, impressive. You smell the smells of the street and hear the rattle of a bike, the engine of a nearby FIAT or the barking of a dog. Then you pass through the portico, the stone columns and beams the barrier between the church and the outside world.
Let me pause for a second. A study from the University of Notre Dame shows that entering a room through a doorway compartmentalizes your memories and thoughts. The sensual experience of the new room has been divided from that of the previous room and it becomes a distinct experience from any you have had. This is as much an architectural point as a psychological one (although to a good architect, to say one is to say the other). In our designs, we must always heed the psychological impact on the users of the building.
But I purposefully have digressed. You are now in the church, and maybe there’s chanting going on through hidden speakers, or a Mass is being prayed, or maybe there’s just silence. The thick stone walls block out the sound of the Fiat. But now you have new visuals, to wit the colored marble, soaring pilasters which culminate in a dome or barrel vault. the light streams through the clerestory windows. (See why I had that series on churches? You were supposed to be taking notes…) The smell of candle wax or incense, or just the stone pervades the space. As you walk through the space, you can feel the air through which you pass, the smooth marble floor, and maybe you run your hand along the wall in appreciation.
All these sensual experiences make the church what it is. Would we build the soaring visuals of a gothic cathedral if we could not see? Would we write music as beautiful as Renaissance Polyphony if we could not hear?
Would we use incense if we could not smell?
Because of our identity as sensual beings, our Father has seen fit to provide us with the ability and desire to create beauty, as he has done. He has provided us with the materials. He has provided us with a universe in which it makes sense.
And then, He provided us with Himself. He became a sensing corporeal human person. Because we understand things through the senses, he made Himself sensible to us.
And now, in the ultimate expression of out Catholic Identity, the Eucharist, he unites all the senses, sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. He gives us churches that call to mind His glory. He gives us music which makes us long for the heavenly song. He gives us the smell of incense, the feeling of our surroundings.
But whereas in most experiences of our environment we do not experience the sense of taste, He has given Himself to be our food. Our liturgy is our experience, our action, our identity. It is the epitome of all experiences for it is all of our senses united for the glory of God.
And I was so hoping I could keep Marchiturgy out of this…
So I guess what I been sayin’ is: If our identity as individuals and as a Church is so influenced by our senses, by our physical nature, then it’s got to be pretty important. So get out there, relish the world. It’ll help.
And then get back to us and tell us what you experienced.