St. Ignatius suggests that we can pray about our senses the way we pray about keeping the Commandments (Spiritual Exercises 247). More characteristically, he suggests using our senses to start contemplating: see the persons, hear what they say, and observe what they do (SE 106). These are traditional uses of the senses.
One application of the senses, though, makes Ignatian contemplation quite distinctive. It is usually referred to as “the application of the senses,” and you use it once you begin the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises. From then on, you contemplate an event in Jesus’ life for four separate hours each day, starting with an hour around midnight. By evening, your memory is full of images, your mind full of meanings, and your heart charged with affects. And then you spend a fifth hour “applying the five senses” to what you have contemplated (SE 121).
Ignatius explains that you just watch and listen. You “smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness of the divinity” (SE 124). But don’t get too abstracted: hug the tree the people in the Gospel story stood under, or sit where they were sitting. You might even “apply your senses to the soul and virtues” of the persons you are contemplating: can I feel the yearning that the Rich Young Man felt? Did Thomas pull his hand back when Jesus put it in his side?
With this application of the senses, Ignatian contemplation is never an out-of-body experience, even at its deepest. It is never just about you, because it is all about the enfleshed spirits among whom you are. Here is an example: I am hunkered down in a corner of the Upper Room. The warm fragrance of baking bread explains the cluttered breakfast table. The Lady Mary holds Peter’s hand in her lap as they sit against a wall. Little John is lying on a couch with his head on Thomas’s thigh; both of them have been crying. No one says much. Then everyone makes a little sound that startles me. They all jump up: Jesus is standing there, smiling. He says, “Peace.” His voice is piercingly beautiful. He puts his hand on his mother’s cheek, bows over her, and kisses her forehead. Peter just stands there, hangdog. Jesus puts his arm over Peter’s shoulder, and Peter looks up. They look at each other, and something intimate goes between them, somehow consoling me, still hunkered down. Then I’m surprised at how Jesus goes to each one, tenderly doing different things. Suddenly I can’t breathe. Jesus is standing in front of me. He says, “Stand up.” I do but don’t look up. I feel his hand on my face. He makes me look at him. From far inside myself, I look into his eyes. I see that he loves me—he loves me. I keep looking and see something that astounds me and makes me a little afraid: he yearns for me to love him. He wants me to love him. That lasts a long time.
Then a bell rings somewhere, and I am back in the chair in my room, content to be among his friends.