Just over a week ago, my wife Roberta and I visited the Cluny Museum in Paris, where, among many other art treasures from the late Middle Ages, we gazed on the beautiful tapestries celebrating the Six Senses. Taste. Smell. Touch. Sight. Hearing. These tapestries summed up the sensory pleasures of our three weeks in France and Spain. And then we stood spellbound before number six: “Mon Seul Desir” – My Only Desire. A lovely woman with touseled blonde hair is attended by a lovely maid, a lion, and a unicorn. The lady is reaching into a treasure-box held by the maid.
I’m not qualified to participate in the ongoing scholarly debate about the meanings of the imagery in this and the other five tapestries. But the raw experience of seeing “Mon Seul Desir” reached across the centuries to touch my soul. Even without speculation about its symbolism, the tapestry was a window into the the realm beyond the five senses. It was physical beauty that pointed beyond itself. At their most profound, the arts of the five senses stimulate the sixth.
The “sixth sense” in popular culture is a reference to paranormal powers of perception. But I sense it’s something deeper than clairvoyance. It’s not some kind of superpower. It is our ability and propensity to have a relationship with the underlying essence of all reality. There’s a subtle way in which we can know what we cannot know, touch what we cannot touch. The sixth sense is the knowledge that comes through deep humility, through a vivid awareness of what we don’t know, through a disciplined abandonment of claims to knowledge. It’s the deep hunch that there is a living Whole that is more than the sum of the limited number of parts of the universe that I can perceive. My awareness of my ignorance is the sixth sense through which I am able to have a relationship of awe-filled appreciation for that Whole. Standing before the old tapestry, I felt that presence.
Another holy moment for us in Paris was our visit to the 18th century church of St. Sulpice near Luxembourg Gardens. It’s a sanctuary of sanctuaries. All around its inner perimeter are small chapels dedicated to various saints, manifestations of the Holy Mother, or moments in the life of Jesus. Each one sheltered people praying or offering devotion. The design of the church is a celebration of intra-Christian religious pluralism, recognizing that different people find different means of touching the untouchable and knowing the ultimately unknowable. The sixth sense is experienced in at least as many ways as there are people.
Across the floor of St. Sulpice is a “gnomon”, a brass meridian line marking the path of the sun over the course of a year. A lens in an upper window in the church focuses the sun on the line. It was placed in the Catholic Church’s quest to compute more accurately the dates of Easter, which is determined by both solar and lunar calendars, into the future. Of course, the church’s patronage of astronomy came back to bite it, with the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe as Catholic doctrine presumed. So that brass meridian line can be read as religion pointing beyond itself. The church of the five senses aims itself at the sixth, which no religious dogma can contain.