“Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses”

Incense fills the nostrils of a Krishna devotee in a temple in Vrindavan, India, letting him know he is in a sacred place; Muslim worshipers heed the muezzin’s amplified call to prayer from the minaret of a Moroccan mosque; a girl tastes bitter herbs at a Passover Seder in Brooklyn, reminding her of the harshness of her ancestors’ slavery in Egypt; a Greek Orthodox woman gazes reverently upon an icon of Jesus Christ and sees the gaze returned, knowing she is blessed; a Zen Buddhist acolyte strolls meditatively through gardens in Kyoto, experiencing form and emptiness. These sensual experiences are part and parcel of the stuff of religion. Myths, rituals, symbols, acts of devotion, prayer, and faith itself do not occur without sensual encounters. To learn about religion we have to come to our senses.

— Brent Plate,  A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses, 8

The late Andrew Greeley (1928-2013) was a Roman Catholic priest, bestselling novelist, popular columnist, and respected sociologist of religion. His breakthrough bestseller was The Cardinal Sins (1981). In the words of one review, Greeley “did for the Catholic Church what The Godfather did for the mafia.”

My favorite of his books is The Catholic Imagination in which he explores the different ways that Catholicism and Protestantism shape the religious imaginations of those who are raised in the Christian tradition. Many Protestants grow up worshipping in brightly-lit sanctuaries with stark, blank white walls. In contrast, many Catholics grow up in more dimly-lit, dark-walled, richly-ornate spaces. Greely writes that, “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures.” And among the many important implications are that, the Catholic Imagination is “one of the reasons, Greeley believed, that the Catholic church over the centuries has been a great patron of the arts: It grasps the power of imagery to convey what precise doctrinal formula cannot.”

In contrast, a significant part of the Protestant Reformation that shaped the Protestant religious imagination was a rebellion against rituals, customs, and traditions that became viewed as meaningless — as either “tradition for tradition’s sake” or that religious hierarchies had come to abuse to control and extort the laity. The stripping away of meaningless or manipulative rituals led to those stark, blank white walls of Protestant worship spaces and the simplified liturgies of Protestant worship services that were much more literal and text-based than Catholic mass.

Reflecting on how the communities we have been apart of have shaped our religions imagination can help us become more aware of the ways that what we experience during our childhoods can unconsciously become our normative reference point — the standard against which all deviations are judged — even to the extent that we can sometimes find ourselves unreflectively thinking that it has always been that way since the beginning.

At their best, rituals invite us into a liminal, “threshold” time and space in which we become more open to an encounter with the sacred, depth dimension of life. And there is an interesting new book from Beacon Press that reflects on the role of ritual in religious traditions titled A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses. The author Brent Plate reflects on the ways that often the simplest, most commonplace objects — stones, incense, drums, crosses, bread — can become invested with tremendous, even transformative, pathos and meaning. 

The author claims that the “1/2” in the title is “a symbolic of our incomplete natures, the need for a human body to be made whole through relations with something outside itself” (3). And although I agree with that statement from the perspective of the Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle (“the interdependent web of all existence”), to be honest, my perception is that making the title “A History of Religion in Five 1/2 Objects” is a bit of a marketing ploy to pique your curiosity enough to open the book and find out what he means. But even if it is a bit of a manipulation doesn’t mean it isn’t effective (it got me to open the table of contents!)— just like it’s not paranoid if they really are out to get you.

I find the book’s subtitle more direct and persuasive: “Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses.” That’s what I find most important about ritual: simple objects — stones, incense, drums, crosses, bread — can transform our worship and ourselves through engaging our taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound. The senses can transport and transforms us. As one of my mentors taught me, worship should be a Symphony for the Senses.”

When I think of the long history of stones in the history of religion, what immediately comes to mind are the Pyramids in Egypt, which astoundingly were constructed 4,000 years ago, or Stone Henge in England built around the same time. Or more simply cairns: those simple but often breathtakingly beautiful stacks of rocks. Or the stones built into the Jerusalem Temple, including those that remain as the Wailing Wall. Or the rock at the center of the Ka’ba in Mecca that are a central part of the Islamic pilgrimage the Hajj. But Plate’s book also reminded me of:

The discovery in the 1960s of the great stone rings of Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey evidence ritual gatherings, aesthetic creations, and the use of stone more than eleven thousand years ago. Dating six thousand years before Stonehenge, and seven thousand before the…Pyramid at Giza, this is the place of the oldest known temple on earth. (39)

That’s Neolithic religion!

Plate also focuses on crosses, which Western Civilization has come to associate most strongly with Christianity. But the Egyptian ankh is one of many reminders that the cross precedes Christianity and archetypically represents the intersection of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of life, the meeting of the sacred and mundane.

Plate’s final religious ritual object is bread. And I invite you to consider that the word compan-ion literally means “with bread.” A companion is literally someone with whom you break bread. As you sit down to eat in the coming days I invite you to allow that ritual — that may not always involve literally break bread — of taking the first bite of your meal  to remind you to be more fully present that that companion or companions with whom you are eating. Each meal is another opportunity and invitation to break down walls and build community.

For now, I’ll leave you with a final invitation. Sometime today if possible or in the next week or so, I invite you to take a leisurely walk. It can be as short as to the end of the block and back. Allow that walk to be a symphony for the senses for you. Pay attention to all that you notice through your senses. Perhaps you’ll see a particular object that resonates with you. Perhaps that object might be the start of a simple home altar in the corner of a room or the corner of the desk that can remind you to pause periodically and remember the beauty and the wonder all around us — even or especially through such common objects as stones, incense, drums, crosses, or bread. As Mary Oliver says in this poem from her collection titled Thirst:

It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; . . .

this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.


The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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