Sensing God in Catholicism
The five senses — sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste — are all used in Catholic worship. Catholics believe that the internal action of divine grace entering the human soul can’t be seen, felt, smelled, heard, or tasted. But because external symbols can be perceived by the senses, Catholics use many external symbols for the human body to perceive, while the soul receives the divine grace.
Catholicism teaches that God the Father has no human body. He’s pure spirit, and that means totally invisible. But because of the importance of the human sense of sight, people have felt the need to represent God visually somehow — to create a visible symbol of the invisible God.
God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are most often represented in visible form as follows:
- God the Father is usually depicted as on old man with a long flowing beard, an image that came from the early Europeans. In modern and contemporary Christian art, however, God the Father is also represented with Asian or African features, for example. The modern reasoning is that if God is a spirit, why portray him just as a Caucasian man?
- Jesus had a face, but with no pictures of him to draw from, artists have used their own creativity to depict the Savior.
- God the Holy Spirit is almost always portrayed as a dove, because the Bible speaks of a dove descending on Jesus at his Baptism by John the Baptist.
Catholic architecture and art uses visual symbols to enhance the faith. For example, the gothic cathedrals spiral up toward heaven to remind the faithful of their destiny in the next world — and not to get too comfortable in this earthly one. To literally see the beauty of Catholic worship, you can visit the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. The marble, the gold, the stained glass, the light, the altar, the tabernacle, and especially the seven-foot-tall monstrance surrounded by gold and jewels all attract the human eye and inspire the human soul to aspire to heaven.
The sense of touch is also used in Catholic worship. Getting baptized, people literally feel the water being poured over their head. When getting anointed, they feel the Oil of the Sick being applied to their forehead and the palms of their hands. During the Sacrament of Matrimony, the bride and groom join right hands before pronouncing their vows. At Confirmation, those being confirmed feel the Chrism Oil being put on their foreheads. In addition, when being ordained a priest, a man can feel the two hands of the bishop being imposed on the top of his head.
Catholics praying the Rosary can feel the beads as they pray the Hail Marys and meditate on the mysteries of Jesus and Mary. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics can feel the ashes of burnt palms (from last year’s Palm Sunday) being imposed on their forehead. In addition, holy-water fonts are at every entrance and exit of Catholic churches, so believers can touch the holy water with their right hands and bless themselves.
The most obvious appeal to the nose in Catholic worship involves burning incense, which is made from aromatic resins of certain trees that are dried to a powder or crystalline form. When placed on burning charcoal, incense produces a visible smoke and a recognizable aroma that fills the church. The smoke represents prayers going up to heaven, and the sweet aroma reminds people of the sweetness of God’s divine mercy.
Another familiar smell to Catholics is Chrism Oil or sometimes called Oil of Chrism, which is olive oil that’s been blessed by the local diocesan bishop. This oil is used to consecrate bishops, anoint the hands of priests, confirm Catholics, baptize Catholics, bless bells, and consecrate altars and churches. It produces a distinctive aroma that the sense of smell can detect quite easily. The strong but pleasant odor comes from balsam, an aromatic perfume that’s added to the Chrism Oil.
The most obvious way a believer hears God is by listening to his word. Catholicism is a biblical religion. The words of the Bible are read aloud at every Catholic Mass, be it Sunday or daily Mass. The readings are from both the Old and New Testaments. In every parish on the weekend, after the Old Testament reading and before the New Testament Epistle reading, a Psalm is normally sung. After the Epistle, a passage from one of the four Gospels is read. And many Catholic hymns are based on scriptural citations.
The Catholic Church also uses plenty of music, especially organ music and choirs, and Gregorian Chant, Latin chant named after Pope St. Gregory the Great, A.D. 590-604. The reasoning is that the beautiful sounds of the pipe organ and delicate tones of the human voice are also reminders of God.
Catholicism even employs the sense of taste in its worship. The Holy Eucharist is the most important, sacred, and pivotal aspect of Catholic worship, because it’s regarded as the real, true, and substantial body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ — under the appearances of bread and wine. Those appearances appeal to and are perceived by the sense of taste.
At Communion time, the believer receives the Holy Eucharist, but it still tastes like unleavened bread and grape wine. (The Latin Church uses unleavened bread, but the Eastern Church uses leavened bread.) The sense of taste doesn’t perceive the change of substance, hence the term transubstantiation, from bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.