Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.
—From Jesus and Lao Tzu: The Parallel Sayings
Delight in sense experience has often received a bad press. Some have put down sensual enjoyment because they thought this was the proper religious attitude. Jesus did not share this attitude. But then, Jesus was not much concerned with being proper. He showed such zest for life that respectable members of society called him “a glutton and a wine-bibber” (Matthew 11:19). Their own strait-laced stance appeared to them as the truly religious one. In contrast, the friends of Jesus experienced in his company through all their senses God’s liberating presence. In the inflection and modulation of his voice God’s message reached their ears. What he said was inseparable from how he said it. As his hands touched their skin, God’s caring touched their hearts. From there it was only a small step to the insight that every sensuous experience is at heart a spiritual one, a divine revelation. No matter how we repress this intuition, it is there in every human heart just waiting to be triggered.
God’s Good News comes to us humans first and foremost through our senses: “Our message concerns that which was from the beginning. We have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we have looked at it and our hands have touched it: the life-giving Word…. We bear witness to what we have seen and heard…so that your joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4).
Joy is the gist of the Christian Good News. Yet, only if we open wide our senses will we be able to drink from the source of this joy. Only then will the Good News prove truly good and ever new.
Common sense tells us there is nothing in our intellect that did not enter through the doors of perception. Our loftiest concepts are rooted in sense experiences. Only by going to their roots can we “dig” great ideas. People who are too fastidious to dirty their hands by coming to grips with concepts at their roots are left with notions that are literally “cut and dried.” Cut off from the senses, dry reasoning turns into non-sense.
Sensuousness or Sensuality?
We must, of course, distinguish between sensuousness and sensuality. The difference is that sensuality gets so wrapped up in sensual pleasure that it never goes on to find full joy. A life rooted in sensuousness thrives. A life entangled in sensuality chokes and withers; it resembles a tangle of roots. Healthy sensuousness rises from root to vine to leaf and fragrant blossom. The sweet scent of honeysuckle in the evening air could not exist without the vine’s hidden roots; but now this surpassing fragrance has its own existence. True joy surpasses mere sensuous pleasure. Without ever rejecting our senses we must go beyond them. Sooner or later, our senses wilt and die. True joy lasts….
We humans belong to both realms, the realm of the senses and a realm that goes beyond them. This stretches us. To avoid the tension of this stretching process we are apt to settle for half of our rightful inheritance. Still, our human birth gives us a dual citizenship. Only by claiming both realms as home can we avoid the polarization of our human consciousness. Our noblest task is to make the most of this creative tension. If we neglect what goes beyond our senses, we sink below animals. But if we deny being animals and neglect or reject our senses, we clip the very wings on which we are meant to rise to higher spheres. Unless we claim our dual citizenship and are at home with both angels and beasts we become alienated from both, alienated from what is truly human; we become—in Christopher Fry’s apt image, “Like a half-wit angel strapped to the back of a mule.”…
As human beings we stand at the crossroads of body and mind, of senses and sense. To hold these opposite poles together in harmony is our existential task. Now and then, someone accomplishes this task and the result shines forth as uniquely human beauty: a body radiant with brightness from beyond the senses; intangible splendor yet fully embodied. The eyes of true lovers are lucid enough to see this beauty in each other; we catch glimpses of it in great masterpieces of the visual arts; a piece of music may express it, or a poem, or a dancer’s grace. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote his Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus in the same year (1922) in which T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland, made our standing at the crossroads a central theme of his poetic work….
If you have ever watched a honeybee tussle and tumble about in the silky recesses of a peony blossom you will appreciate an image Rilke uses for our task of translating sense experience into experience that goes beyond the senses. Watch that bee reveling in the fragrance of innumerable purple and white and pink petals until, dusted with golden pollen, it finds the source of nectar hidden at the heart of the ower. Watch how with total absorption of all its senses in this peony world the bee performs what is both vital task and ecstatic play. And then read how the poet understands our own task in this human world:
Our task is to impress on our whole being this passing, impermanent earth so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that it will rise again—now “invisible”—within us. We are the bees of the invisible. With total absorption, we gather the nectar of the visible into the great golden honeycomb of the invisible.
…From hive to blooming meadow and back home our hearts keep winging their way; from the invisible through the visible and then—heavy with harvest like bees with baggy pants of pollen and bellies bulging with nectar—back home to “the great golden honey-comb of the invisible.” This is the pattern of our heart’s repeated journeys throughout life and of life’s quest as a whole….
Nurturing the Senses
Most people’s glorious gates of perception creak on rusty hinges. How much of the splendor of life is wasted on us because we plod along half-blind, half-deaf, with all our senses throttled, and numbed by habituation. How much joy is lost on us. How many surprises we miss. It is as if Easter eggs had been hidden under every bush and we were too lazy to look for them. But it need not be so. We are able to stop the advance of dullness like the spread of a disease.
We can even reverse the process and initiate healing. We can deliberately pay attention each day to one smell, one sound which we never appreciated before, to one color or shape, one texture, one taste to which we never before paid attention. Try for just one week to dedicate each day to cultivating a different one of your senses. Monday: smell day; Tuesday: taste day; and so on. Since there are two more days in a week than the acknowledged five senses, I suggest you give three days to the much neglected sense of touch.
We long to be in touch with life, to touch and to be touched. Yet, we are also afraid of letting anything “get at us.” Afraid of letting life come too close, we keep it at arm’s length and don’t even realize what fools we are making of ourselves. We are going through life like someone stepping into the shower, carefully keeping the umbrella up. We are holding on to our hats, our tokens of social identity and respectability. Far be it from us to make fools of ourselves! It takes a bit of life experience to realize that our choice is merely between making fools of ourselves either intentionally or unintentionally. By refusing to dare and make fools of ourselves willingly and wisely, we make fools of ourselves foolishly….
Joy in Gratitude
Joy goes beyond happiness. Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It springs from gratefulness. When we begin to take things for granted, we get sucked into boredom. Boredom is deadly. Yet, everything within us longs for “life, life in fullness” (John 10:10). The key to life in fullness is gratefulness.
Try this: Before you open your eyes in the morning, stop and think. Remember that there are millions of blind people in this world. Surely, you will open your eyes more gratefully, even if you’d rather keep them closed a little longer and snooze on. As soon as we stop taking our eyesight for granted, gifts spring into our eyes which we did not even recognize as gifts before. To recognize a gift as gift is the first step towards gratefulness. Since gratefulness is the key to joy, we hold the key to joy, the key to what we most desire, in our own hands….
What we have established here, I hope, is that in a spirituality faithful to Jesus Christ sensuousness is not suspect but sacred. A listening heart recognizes in the throbbing of reality pulsating against all our senses the heartbeat of divine life at the core of all that is real.
Excerpted from The Way of Silence: Engaging the Sacred in Everyday Life, by Brother David Steindl-Rast (Alicia von Stamwitz, ed.).
David Steindl-Rast is an Austrian-born Benedictine monk and one of the most influential and beloved spiritual teachers of our time. He has been a monk of Mount Saviour monastery in New York since 1953, dividing his time between monastic life, writing, and worldwide lecturing. He has contributed to a wide range of books and periodicals as well as authored ten books of his own. He is the cofounder of gratefulness.org, and he was one of the first Roman Catholics to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. He has brought spiritual depth into the lives of countless people through his lectures, workshops, and bestselling books.
Alicia (Ramirez de Arellano) von Stamwitz was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States in 1960. She is an award-winning freelance author and longtime editor with the religious press. Her interviews and profiles of today’s most influential spiritual leaders are published internationally. She lives in Missouri with her family.