God and the Five Senses

A priest I knew many years ago opposed to the move from Latin to English in the prayers and readings at Mass. “For,” he said, “if the people heard the creed in their own language, they might discover that they didn’t believe it.” An instance of what he meant may be found in today’s Gospel, about the resurrection from the dead; for most of us nowadays would instinctively side with the Sadducees who said that there was no such resurrection. That for the Jews meant a resurrection of the body as we profess in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” For the logistics of the event boggle the mind. Where, for instance, could you put all those bodies? And what about those that have disappeared, such as cremated remains scattered in a garden or on a lake? The early Christians were willing to leave such matters in the hands of God. But as for the resurrection itself, they found evidence of it everywhere:

Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which he has made our Lord Jesus Christ the first fruit, having raised him from the dead. . . . Day and night show to us the resurrection; the night sinks to sleep and the day arises; the day departs, the night comes on.[1]

For now, however, I want to pursue the matter in another direction, for it strikes me that the human body already shows signs of moving beyond the physical world, of its having been made for another sort of existence that points to resurrection. Consider the five senses: sight, hearing smell, touch and taste.

Sight: We may not see as far or as sharply as an eagle, but we see in a different way. A painting, even an abstract, e.g., can move us to tears . . . or to laughter.

Hearing: Similarly, our hearing is not as acute as a dog’s; but we hear music with pleasure, threats with fear and so forth.

Smell, too, can unlock memories or anticipate sorrow or joy:

how different flowers smell from fruits, fruits from spices, spices from roast-beef or pork-cutlets, and so on. Now . . . these scents are perfectly distinct from each other, and sui generis; they never can be confused; yet each is communicated to the apprehension in an instant. Sights take up a great space, a tune is a succession of sounds; but scents are at once specific and complete, yet indivisible. Who can halve a scent? they need neither time nor space; thus they are immaterial or spiritual.[2]

Touch: Simply imagine a blind man reading the Bible in braille.

Taste: A novelist from a century ago provides a famous instance of taste transcending mere physical sensation:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me. . . . An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached with no suggestion of its origin.[3]

We must recognize, then, that our human experience of the material world has something transcendent about it. Scripture confirms this fact by describing the activity of God himself—who is utterly transcendent—in terms of the five senses.


The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God.[4]


When the righteous cry for help the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.[5]


Aaron’s sons shall burn it on the altar . . .; it is an offering by fire, a pleasing odour to the Lord.[6]


The Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said tome, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.[7]

Taste, however, presents an intriguing difficulty, for the Lord never tastes anything in the Old Testament. And why? It is because the organ of taste, the mouth, is unlike all the other senses. They can be more or less acute, they can be more or less sensitive, but each of them performs a single operation. The surprising thing about the mouth is that it performs two completely different functions, one of which is physical—namely, the ingestion of food—and the other is transcendent—the power of speech. Hence it is not surprising that we find, over and over again the Lord God speaking but never tasting. “Thus, the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”[8] We humans are the ones who taste.

O taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.[9]

Open wide you mouth, and I will fill it. . . . I would feed you with the finest of wheat and with honey from the rock.[10]

Significantly, too, the prophet and the apostle eat the word of God:

Ezekiel: “Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill you stomach with it”. Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.[11]

Saint John: I took the little scroll from the hand of the angle and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter.[12]

What are we to learn from these biblical texts about speaking and tasting? Simply this: that we are to eat and then to speak. What is our food to be? Jesus has told us: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.[13] And then, having been fed with the flesh of the Son of man, we shall one day in our risen bodies, and with all the angels and saints eternally speak the praises of God in heaven:

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all therein saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever.”[14]a

[1] 1 Clement 24.

[2] John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain, ch. 12.

[3] Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu: Du côté de chez Swann (Paris: Gallimard, 1999), pp. 44-45.

[4] Ps 13/14.2; cf. 1 Sam 16.7: “The Lord sees, not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance but the Lord looks on the heart.”

[5] Ps 33/34.17.

[6] Lev 3.5.

[7] Jer 1.9.

[8] Ex 33.1.

[9] Ps 33/34.8.

[10] Ps 80/81.10.

[11] Ez 3.3.

[12] Rev 10.10.

[13] Jn 6.54.

[14] Rev 5.12-13.