Saint Maximos the Confessor wrote: “The soul has five senses and the body five. The senses of the soul, which are also called faculties, are intellect, reason, opinion, fantasy, and sense perception. The senses of the body are sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.” There was balance in the first man who “…could indeed, without hindrance, apprehend and enjoy sensory things by means of the senses and intelligent things with the intellect.” Sadly, though, Adam chose to indulge in sensory things, neglecting to contemplate things divine, which led him away from his Creator.
The Great Ascetic Theodoros of the ninth century explains:
Thus Adam used the sense wrongly and was spellbound by sensory beauty and because the fruit appeared to him to be beautiful and good to eat, he tasted it and forsook the enjoyment of intelligible things [that is things that profit the soul]. So it was that the just Judge judged him unworthy of what he had rejected – the contemplation of God and of created beings – and, making darkness his secret place, he deprived him of Himself and of immaterial realities. For holy things must not be made available to the impure. What he fell in love with, God permitted him to enjoy, allowing him to live according to the sense, with but faint vestiges of intellectual perception.”
Although the faculties which search out the divine were implanted by God in the beginning, the descendents of Adam and Eve, expelled from Paradise were enticed by the devil to focus their attention on purely sensory experiences – things that could be touched, tasted, heard, smelled, and seen. For centuries, humanity was unable to grasp that these experiences were but a hint of greater things, divine things that bring the created into a deeper, more authentic relationship with the Creator. By the Grace of the Holy, which descended upon the disciples on the Feast of Pentecost and was imparted by the laying on of hands and prayers following the Rite of Baptism, humanity again possessed the ability to not only sense, but to desire things divine and to return to Paradise.
What are we then to do? Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain writes,
“Those who are zealous for righteousness, must think deeply and work constantly on a strict control and right direction of our five sense – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Our heart constantly craves and seeks comforts and pleasures. It should find them in the inner order of things, by keeping and bearing it itself Him, in Whose image man has been created, Who is the very source of every comfort.”
By God’s Grace, then, we as Christians are to have the senses of the soul, the faculties, dominate the senses of the body, making them instruments of virtue rather than weapons of sin. Saint Maximos the Confessor therefore suggests: “One must watchfully study and reflect how the soul can best reverse the situation and use those things through which it had formerly sinned to generate and sustain the virtues.”
It is not surprising that the saints often address each of the five senses separately to illustrate how we are to use our reason to reunite the material with the immaterial, which again is how and for what we were created. For our purposes I will rely on the writing of St. John of Krondstadt and St. Nicodemos.
With regards to the sense of hearing, St. John writes:
“Music: do not be led astray by the melodious sounds of an instrument or a voice; but by their effect upon the soul consider what is their spirit: if the sounds produce within your souls feelings that are calm, chaste, holy, then listen to them, and feed your soul upon them; but if they rouse your soul to lust, or anger, or some other ill feeling, then cease listening and through aside both the flesh and the spirit of such music.”
Similarly, St. Nicodemos suggests, “If you hear a pleasant voice or a harmony of voices and singing, turn your mind to God, and say ‘Harmony of harmonies, O my Lord! How I rejoice in Your boundless perfections, all blending in You in transubstantial harmony thence are they reflected in the hosts of Angels in the heavens, and in the countless creatures here below; this is the symphony of all, perfect beyond imagining!”
When it comes to our sense of smell, it is enlivened through the fragrance of incense. St. John writes, “…by analogy [it reminds us] of the fragrance of virtue, and by contrast of the evil odor of sins, and teaches those who are attentive to inward feelings to avoid the stench of vices – of intemperance, fornication, malice, envy, pride, despair, and such-like, and to adorn themselves with every Christian virtue; the incense reminds us of the apostle’s words: For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ.”
Similarly, Saint Nicodemos explains, “If you happen to smell some perfumed ointment or the scent of flowers, transfer your thought from this physical fragrance to the secret fragrance of the Holy Spirit and say: ‘O the fragrance of the all-sweetest Flower, and inexhaustible Ointment, Which was poured out on all God’s creatures, as the Song of Songs says: ‘I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.’”
Regarding the sense of taste, St. Nicodemos writes, “when you eat or drink, reflect that it is God, Who gives all food a state which pleases us. So, delighting in Him alone, say: ‘Rejoice, O my soul, for, although you can find no satisfaction, delight or comfort in anything outside of God, you can know Him and cleave to Him, and can find every delight in Him alone as David invites, saying ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’”
Addressing the sense of touch, St. Nicodemos suggests that we first be careful of what we touch, whether it be another person or ourselves, fine garments or creature comforts around us; touch can be very dangerous; “for when [an individual reaches the point of touching what should not be touched, then it is already exceedingly hard for him [or her] to draw back from sinful action.”
As a means of safeguarding ourselves, great attention should be paid to the movements that lead to touch. He writes:
“When you move your hands to do something, bring to your mind the thought that God, Who gave you the power and capacity to act, is the first cause of all movement, and that you are nothing but a living instrument in His hand, and rising to Him in thought, say: ‘O God Most High, Lord of all, what joy fills me at the thought that without You I can do nothing and that You are the prime and principle mover in every action.”
Finally, the eyes must also be bridled, since looking gives birth to desire, be it for another person, foods, drinks, or possessions. If we are inclined to look at the members of the opposite sex, St. John suggests:
“When you see a beautiful girl or woman, or a handsome youth or man, lift up your thoughts at one to the supreme most holy beauty, the author of every heavenly and earthly beauty, God himself; glorify him for having created such beauty out of mere earth; marvel at the beauty of God’s image in man, which shines forth even in our fallen state; imagine what our image shall be when we shine forth in the kingdom of our Father, if we become worthy of it; picture to yourself what must be the beauty of God’s saints, of the holy angels, of the Mother of God herself, adorned with divine glory; imagine the unspeakable goodness of God’s countenance, which we shall behold, and be not led astray by merely earthly beauty by flesh and blood. Merely carnal desire is sweet, but it is corrupting and contrary to God’s will. Hold fast to God alone, not to fleeting carnal beauty.”
Similarly, St. Nicodemos explains, “In general, every time you feel in God’s creatures something pleasing and attractive, do not let your attention be arrested by them alone, but passing them by, transfer your thought to God and say: ‘O my God, if Your creations are so full of beauty, delight and joy, how infinitely more full of beauty, delight and joy are You Yourself, Creator of all!”
I close with the words of St. Nicodemos who writes,
“If you keep to this practice, my beloved, then, through your five senses, you will be able to learn knowledge of God, by always raising your mind from creature to Creator. Then the being and structure of everything created will be for you a book of Theology, and while living in this sensory world, you will share in the knowledge belonging to the world beyond the world. For, indeed, the whole world and all nature is nothing but a certain organ, in which, beneath what is seen, there is invisibly present the Architect and Artist Himself, the Maker of all things…”