Anointing the Five Senses

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Being an Anglican priest in the South tends to prompt questions among evangelical Christians about our tradition, specifically around the subject of worship.  Thankful for the curiosity about Anglican tradition, I try not to bore an inquirer with a long discourse about our theology of worship.  Lately I’ve been summarizing our values in worship by saying that Anglican worship engages all five senses.  “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” writes the psalmist.  Our adoration of God should be visually and sonically beautiful.  

The grace of God comes to us in physical form, alerting our senses of taste, smell, and touch that divine love comes to dwell within our bodies.  The Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae, writes, “All that touches the sense of the body is imprinted on the soul…One cannot have an influence on the soul without acting on the body, and any influence on the body bears the mark of the soul.” 

Reading Staniloae’s writing on the sacraments (The Experience of God, vol. 5: The Sanctifying Mysteries) reveals how all five senses were meant to be engaged in the ministry of the Church.  In the Eastern Orthodox liturgy of baptism, a person is anointed with oil immediately after being baptized in water.   Then the newly baptized Christian receives anointing, not only with the sign of the cross on his forehead, but also the sense organs are anointed.  

As the ears are anointed, the priest prays Isaiah 50.4, “The Lord gave me an ear to hear.”  Nostrils are anointed because temptation is commonly triggered by scents. Hands and feet are anointed to bring the good news of the Gospel and carry out the good works of Christ (Isaiah 52.7; Titus 3.14).  The forehead is anointed to reflect that “with unveiled face you might reflect as a mirror the glory of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3.18). [1]

The message of the sense-anointing is plain: through these senses we encounter God and his world.  We need God to strengthen and defend our physical senses to be both bearers and givers of his life in our world.  

But what about the afflictions one has suffered after baptism?  For physical sicknesses, we pray for healing through anointing and the laying on of hands.  Yet it seems there’s physical grace needed for the invisible wounds we suffer.  Maybe the ministry of anointing our physical senses shouldn’t be limited to the sacrament of baptism.  Perhaps we should be anointing the senses for healing throughout our lives.

When words of shame and hate are spoken into our ears, our hearing needs healing.  There are sights that cause continued suffering, especially for those who suffer from traumatic experiences.  Our vision needs healing for sights that we wish we could unsee.  Scents can transport the soul in an instant to a painful memory.  But with the fragrant oil of healing moving into the body and soul, a new scent brings the aroma of Christ and his promise of healing and hope for a beautiful future.  

The quotation that inspired this blog comes from Georges Bernanos’ novel, Diary of a Country Priest, when the anonymous priest looks back on his life and celebrates the truth that ‘grace is everywhere.’  We were not given one physical sense to encounter the grace of God in this world.  In the marvelous creativity of God, we are given five senses to receive his grace.  Where we have lost that grace, the mercy of God comes to redeem our senses so that we might be healed to bear the glory of God in our bodies and souls again.  To be fully alive is to receive the grace of God with all our senses, for then we will be completely devoted to worship the Lord with our entire being.  

[1]  Staniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 5:  The Sanctifying Mysteries, p. 68-69.