The second-century saint Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is man [and woman] fully alive.” I love this idea and find that it always invites reflection. What does it mean to be fully alive? How well am I doing with that?
One thing I’ve learned is that a big part of being “fully alive” is paying attention. It’s being aware of God’s presence in the present moment, right where I already am. And I’ve found that a good way to cultivate this mindfulness is to pay attention to the five senses.
God speaks to us through what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. We know this intuitively, but to think about it consciously is a powerful form of prayer. When we’re inspired by a song on the radio, when we are moved by the sight of a sweetly vulnerable newborn, or when we are renewed by the cool water of a swimming pool on a hot day, we’re experiencing the creative goodness of God. These moments are proof of what St. Ignatius Loyola believed: that we can and should find God in all things. God meets us where we are, as humans living and breathing and moving in a tangible world, and the five senses are five entry points for God’s love to become known to us.
One thing I value about my Catholic faith is how thoroughly it embodies this reality. Our prayer and worship involve the touch of holy water, the smell of incense, the vivid glow of stained glass, and the taste of the Eucharist. Though there’s a stereotype that Catholicism is hostile to the body, the reverse is true: our faith knows that the body and the soul work together, powerfully.
That’s a lesson I had to learn myself, two decades ago. I was a cradle Catholic who moved away from the Church in my college years, in part because I thought my childhood faith wanted me to reject the physical world in favor of some unrealistic idea of soulful perfection. But thanks to a few key experiences in my twenties, I learned that Catholicism doesn’t deny the power of the body; it actually celebrates it. And now at Mass, when I kneel and hear the Great Amen and see the crucifix and taste the Body of Christ, I am living a faith that invites me to taste and see the goodness of the Lord, and to hear and smell and touch it, too. And when I let that awareness infuse my daily living, when I bring that kind of mindfulness to my commute and my workplace and my home, I see that St. Ignatius Loyola was right: if you have your senses open, you can indeed find God in all things.
So this month of prayer is an invitation: an invitation to “come to our senses,” and to celebrate how God reaches us through our eyes, nose, mouth, hands, ears, and skin. It’s a chance to become conscious of faith as a full-body experience, and to see how that awareness can make us ever more fully alive.