Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, October 28, 2004

Spiritual Senses, Part I 

Well, I'm back from academic purgatorio for a week or so, then I'm off for a week and a half for various meetings across the country. Today and tomorrow I'm going to be writing about one of the subjects which have fascinated me the most these last few months - the 'spiritual senses.'

Although the doctrine of the 'senses' has developed profoundly throughout our Christian theological tradition, it has its beginnings in the theological genius of Origen of Alexandria. My first post will explore these 'senses' in the mystical life, my second, in biblical exegesis.

All knowledge, we are often told, passes through the 'doors of the senses.' And by this is meant, most likely, the five bodily senses - sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. But what if, hypothetically, we as human beings possessed an entirely different set of senses, alongside this set - a set of incorporeal senses rooted in the heart of our being and yet, of which we have remained unaware and incapable of using? This intuition is the heart of Origen's doctrine of the 'spiritual senses.'

That there must be incorporeal senses, for Origen, was simply required by the incorporeal nature of God (a doctrine, surprisingly, which could not yet be taken for granted in Origen's day). If we could gain knowledge only by our corporeal senses, we could never know God.

The foundation for these senses, however, was not some natural capacity of man, but rather a divine gift, arising from man's creation in the very image (Gk. eikon, or 'icon') of God. The fact that man is the 'icon' of an incorporeal God underlined, for Origen, the primacy of the incorporeal, or 'spiritual,' element in man - the soul (psyche), which fluctuates between the spiritual poles of spirit (pneuma) and flesh (sarx).

Origen is no enemy of materiality, but he is realistic about the effects on the soul of its complete immersion in the things of the flesh. Hedged amount by sensible realities on every side, alienated from its true homeland in the communion of heaven, the soul is forced to adapt to its sensible environment. For Origen, a spiritual nature connaturally adapts whatever faculties are suited to the environment in which it finds itself: this is Origen's explanation of why fish have gills, polar bears have hair, etc. - sort of a primitive, theologized account of Darwinian theory. Thus, the human person develops and refines those bodily senses which are equipped to handle the mass input of sensory experience (the 'five senses' we ordinarily speak of), while at the same time, its more inward, spiritual powers of sense lapse into disuse and neglect.

The answer, for Origen, is to recover the use of the 'spiritual senses' which the soul possesses by virtue of its creation in the divine image. This is no easy task. Through want of use, these senses have become stunted and deadened; they no longer take delight in the natural object of their functioning, but remain cold and hardened instead. Our bodily senses, on the other hand, quiver and yearn for the sensible objects of their own desire, infuriated if they are unsatisfied. Thus, these bodily senses must therefore be 'mortified,' deprived of their objects of sense, shut off and chastened through prayer and asceticism until their cries soften to mild whimpers. The spiritual senses, at the same time, must be developed and attuned through a strict regimen of practical and prayerful exercise of these senses. (The analogy I always found helpful here was the extent to which a man stricken with blindness finds his other senses gradually heightened and intensifid over time.) A certain 'taste' for the spiritual life will thereby develop, so that the soul will gradually learn to delight in what it had previously found boring and unsatisfying.

The spiritual senses, according to Origen, are patterned exactly after the bodily senses. In his De Principiis (1.1.9), basing himself on Solomon's words in Proverbs 2:5 ("You will find a divine sense"), he adds, "For he knew that there were within us two kinds of senses: the one mortal, corruptible, human; the other immortal and intellectual, which he now termed divine":

- Spiritual sight, which reveals divine realities, and by which the pure of heart are said to see' God
- Spiritual hearing, by which one hears interiorly the voice of God and 'perceives the deeper meaning' of the Scriptures
- Spiritual touch, which allows one to touch and commune with the Word
- Spiritual smell, by which one is overcome by the sweet aroma of the Word
- Spiritual taste, which allows one to 'partake of the flesh' of the Word with delight

These spiritual senses create a new 'mystical vocabulary' for the spiritual life, and are utilized most expressively in Origen's masterpiece, the Homilies on the Song of Songs. In this love poem, which Origen - along with every other patristic commentator - took as an allegory of the soul's union with God, this spiritual master traces the undulations and vicissitudes which characterize the courtship of Bride and heavenly Bridegroom. Rational formulations cannot express this reality; they must be replaced with 'sensual,' affective expressions, as the soul undertakes the journey of desire for her consummate union with God.

Origen's doctrine of the 'spiritual senses,' seemingly his own innovation, had a profound and lasting effect on the theological tradition, as much in the West as in the East. St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Bernard of Clairveaux, William of St. Thierry, and even St. Ignatius of Loyola bear the marks of his influence. St. Ignatius, however, profoundly alters the doctrine, as his applicatio sensuum presumes that the spiritual and bodily are two aspects of the same sense, rather than two separate senses. Thus, he speaks of transforming one's senses, rather than of putting to death one set of senses in order to bring to life another.

The reason I find Origen's analysis so fascinating is because it changes the whole way we look at the spiritual life. I usually find myself imagining that I can measure the progress of my own spiritual life by how 'spiritual' I feel, that my relationship with God is somehow reflected in my conscious awareness of it, and that - if only I add this or that devotional practice into my daily routine - I will finally feel the satisfaction that belongs to the just. Origen shows us that what we need, on the contrary, is nothing short of a complete makeover of the way we think and act. The spiritual life requires certain anthropological 'equipment' that, at least in most of us, is either inept or entirely dormant. Any attempt to actually utilize this equipment will necessarily be harsh and unrewarding at first, perhaps necessitating lengthy 'dry spells' in which we find ourselves carrying on regimens or practices which we find dry and empty. But only gradually, through patient exercise and perseverance, will we develop a 'taste' for this life, and only then will we gain a sense of the 'delight' that rightfully belongs to those who have tasted of the divine Word.

# posted by Jamie : 1:10 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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