During the recent lockdown, many of us became more aware of the rich role each of our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – played in heightening our appreciation of the natural world. The absence of the city sounds, busy routines and social activities that had previously shaped our days and defined our lives gave us pause to attend to those quieter, less intrusive rhythms of life that surround us and that can enrich our lived experience.
In a new book, Spirituality & the Senses: Living Life to the Full (Messenger Publications), author Catherine McCann describes a continuum that extends from physical awareness to inner insight and spiritual enlightenment. Guiding the reader on a journey of increasing awareness, she brings us from attention to the ‘outer’ senses that connect us to the world to an awareness of the ‘inner’ senses that connect us to our deeper selves and our spirituality.
Based on her experience working with visitors to the Shekina Sculpture Garden in County Wicklow, the author explains how, through attention to our everyday sensory experiences, we can create a space for reflection and spiritual enrichment in our lives.
In the book, we are given an introduction to the Shekina Sculpture Garden. It is described as a one acre site consisting of twenty-one sculptures by Irish artists, with shrubs, ponds and seating areas. Catherine notes that visitors are first given a short talk on the five senses before then strolling around the garden on their own. They are encouraged to focus on what attracts them, for example, a sound, shape, colour or view. They may take off their shoes and touch the sculptures made from stone, iron, stainless steel, bronze, glass, enamel and wood. Some comments by visitors to describe the experience include “amazing, calming, inspiring, serene, soothing and uplifting”.
The author notes that four of the five outer senses are related to the head, while one – touch – encompasses the whole body and is the last to leave us. Inner senses refer to our inner perceptions of reality which include our impressions of people or things. When we pay attention to our inner senses, we use words such as ‘I feel’, ‘I know’ or ‘I discern’. “Someone who is really tuned into this sense,” says Catherine, “is perceptive not only of what is going on inside them, but also of what is going on inside others; they are aware of other people’s state of mind, their mood and their wellbeing.”
The author focuses on enhancing knowledge through the use of our senses with a particular emphasis on coming to know through intuition. Regarding intuition, she says: “It perceives the truth by more than just a ‘hunch’ or ‘whim’. Rather intuition rises from deep inside a person, often comes slowly, can be the culmination of working through something and therefore is likely to be true”.
After providing an overview of the nervous system that activates our five senses, Catherine then discusses these senses individually along the inner senses that accompany them. There is hearing and inner listening, seeing colour and form and inner seeing, touching and inner touching, smelling and inner smelling, tasting and inner tasting.
St Augustine of Hippo and St Ignatius of Loyola are two major figures in the history of Christianity who dealt with our inner sensing in relation to faith. Both men, we are told, show a keen interest in the importance of the senses for themselves as well as for others. Augustine’s conversion took place in a garden and his ‘ode to beauty’ intertwined the senses with his religious faith. Ignatius is known for his use of imaginative contemplation as recorded in his Spiritual Exercises which attend to our five senses, imagination and feelings to reach interior understanding and truth. Both men developed an increasing awareness of themselves, God and the world.
Finally, the author reflects on how the younger son ‘came to his senses’ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This short book invites all of us to rediscover the gift of our senses and to see the world with a contemplative eye or a ‘long, loving look at the real’.
Catherine McCann is the curator of the Shekina Sculpture Garden in County Wicklow. She is a retired physiotherapist, and formerly a religious. She studied theology in Rome during the Second Vatican Council and has a master’s degree in theology. Later, she completed a doctorate based on the experiences of visitors to the Shekina Sculpture Garden.