A few weeks ago, as I was washing my hands, a random thought entered my brain: “What does heaven smell like?” I stopped what I was doing and tried to figure out what could have triggered that thought – and then I realized it was the aroma of the hand soap I was using. It is a scent I find very pleasing and is called “Rain Water”. Clean, light, fresh, cool. My sense of smell triggered a thought of what it may be like being with God.
Our senses can be an integral part of how we worship and experience God. When living in the Washington, D.C., area, I belonged to Augustana Lutheran Church. It is close to the White House in a neighborhood that is home to many African Americans and increasingly refugees from Central America. It is near Dupont Circle, an area of a large LGBTQ+ community. Young professionals coming to D.C. for a few years are drawn to the neighborhood. Politics range the gamut. What holds this congregation together? It is its long standing “bells and smells” worship in which all the senses are engaged.
Since time of the Old Testament, we are encouraged to use our senses to experience God. In Psalm 34, not only is God described as using the senses (“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and God’s ears are open to their cry.” Ps. 34:15) but we, as God’s people, are encouraged to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Ps. 34:8. When I was young these words confused me – I thought that this meant we should taste with our eyes and see with our mouths. Now, I’ve come to understand that our senses are integrally connected, just as is our experience of God.
What of the use of the senses in worship, both our corporate worship lives as well as how we personally experience God?
SMELL. The smell of “Rain Water” soap triggered a reaction on my part. We have learned during the time of Covid-19 that our senses are not to be taken for granted, particularly taste and smell. J. R. Briggs wrote in “Outreach Magazine” that the loss of these senses while stricken with Covid-19 has caused him to “ponder the importance of our senses in the Christian faith.” He now asks his students: “What does God smell like?” which tends to make them squirm in their seats. He goes on to say: “We have permission to ask new – and potentially uncomfortable – questions. Engagement with Scripture is different when you approach it with a poster of wonder, curiosity and imagination. New questions lead to new insight and new encounters with faith.”
At Augustana, members and friends are given the opportunity several times each year to be anointed during the service. At first, I did not participate. But after I went the first time, I found myself returning. Why? Did I feel an immediate rush of forgiveness when hands were laid on me and my forehead was anointed? No. It was because the smell of the fragrant oil lingered and whenever I noted the aroma, I felt enveloped by God’s love.
SOUND. In the Book of Exodus, we read of the exuberant victory song of Miriam following the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. She picked up the tambourine and shook it while she and others danced. (Exodus 15). The thanks of the Israelites were magnified by sound and song. Lutheran worship is known for its well-crafted singing and use of musical instruments, particularly the organ. As times change, the sound of worship – whether individual or corporate – will change. I love the sound of the organ, but my aunt and uncle (“the organ is a pompous, overblown windbag”) sought worship services with as little use of the organ as possible. Whether in our corporate worship or personal devotional life, we each will find the sound that best expresses our love of God. And, at times, the best sound of all is silence.
SIGHT. We see the colors of the liturgical year. We see the candles flickering on the altar. In many Orthodox churches, and increasingly in other denominations and personal devotion, icons call us to look into the eyes of the saints and through those eyes, catch a glimpse of Divine Love. But sight is not limited to the confines of a building. Living as we do in the Intermountain West, we need not journey far, perhaps no farther than our living room window, to see the hills and mountains. “I will lift mine eyes until the hills, from whence cometh my help.” (Ps. 121: 1) But sight can also be experienced through Braille, as can sound through the use of ASL. The wonders of this world and the faces of our loved ones show us the face of God.
TASTE. We taste the wine and bread during the Eucharist. The Rev. Tanya Rasmussen, of the Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC, stated that tasting the elements of the Eucharist, contemplating how we are nourished and strengthened, is in itself a spiritual exercise. She also encourages us, as we eat or drink, to notice the variety of flavors we encounter and how the flavor of food may change. “How might this help you think about a changing experience of God in your life?” (“Holy Habits – Prayer Week 5”)
TOUCH. The sense of touch may be the most intimate of the senses. All four Gospels record that the disciples were scandalized when Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with oil and then used her hair to wipe his feet dry. For touch to occur between two people, they must be physically close to each other. For it to be genuine, there must be trust between them. Touch can bring assurance, strength and comfort as a reminder of God’s love for us. Yet even touch with inanimate objects, such as with prayer beads, can help us focus our prayers and remove distractions from our minds.
Use your senses. Taste, see, smell, hear, touch what the Lord has done and is doing right now.