If we restrict our understanding and the practice of prayer as being an activity of the head it can be likened to a bird trying to fly with one wing. We are missing the richness of the use of the senses that God has given us. We learn about the physical world around us by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing. So, too, we can use our senses to learn about and experience God. To “sense” something is to understand and experience life, gaining knowledge and achieving our potential.
Prayer and Touch
There are several ways of using the sense of touch in prayer. Often people will hold on to a small cross, or other small smooth object when they pray. It is a way of focussing on God and bringing Jesus into the particular time and space of the prayer. For centuries, people have used prayer beads as an aid to prayer. The action of feeling the beads and moving from one bead to another provides an internal rhythm. Feeling the shape, the texture, the size of the beads, and the spaces around them relax us and helps focus our attention, which then brings us into greater silence and into contemplation, before God. There is an Anglican Rosary (pictured here) that is a blending of the Marian (Roman Catholic) Rosary and the Orthodox Jesus Prayer Rope.
Prayer and Sight
Reading words is the most obvious and often use of the sense of sight in prayer. However, we can use visible images to serve as invitations to prayer. Cutting a major link with the physical world by closing your eyes is not a precondition of prayer. Many of us feel the presence of God powerfully when we are in nature with our eyes seeing the wonder of creation. We decorate our churches with objects that should be invitations to prayer. Another form of using our sense of sight in prayer is the use of icons. Sacred icons serve as bridges to Christ. The Eastern Christian churches are noted for their extensive use of icons. When praying with icons it is not the image itself that is important, it is letting the image be the bridge between us and God. It is the vehicle for God to speak to us. Praying with icons is a receiving form of prayer. Most often praying with icons is done in a quiet place, letting God’s spirit connect directly with our spirit.
Prayer and Smell
We might not immediately identify the sense of smell with prayer. However, incense, which has distinctive aroma, has been employed in worship by Christians since antiquity. The practice is rooted in the earlier traditions of Judaism. The smoke of burning incense is interpreted by both the Western Catholic and Eastern Christian churches as a symbol of the prayer of the faithful rising to heaven, as in
Psalm 141, v2: “Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.” For many the smell of incense is an invitation to prayer.
Prayer and Hearing
In prayer we receive what God is saying to us. Hearing God speak through our ears is a powerful way to listen to God. God often speaks to us through others when they speak to us. For me music is a powerful way to listen to God. Certainly through sung words, but often just the instrumental music triggers a closeness to God that I do not otherwise achieve. Prayer and Praise go together. In addition to spoken words and music, meaningful worship, which is, after all, a form of prayer, is often enhanced by such things as bells and singing bowls.
Prayer and Taste
Every time we eat or drink there is an opportunity to offer prayers of thanksgiving. Many say grace” at the beginning of meals, as a reminder that God is the source of all goodness and love. Eating the bread and drinking the wine in a Eucharist celebration is in itself an act of prayer invoking out sense of taste. In some Eucharistic liturgies we are invited to, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, invoking the sense of taste. A useful practice might be to thank God for the bounty of creation, or thanksgiving for the gift of Jesus, as the bread touches our lips. As we swallow the wine, we might thank God for the sacrifice of Jesus and God’s forgiveness.