This is what I love when I love my God.
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 19 August 2018
God is a beckoning word! That’s a phrase that was used by Gerard Hughes. He was a very influential writer who 30 years ago wrote the book ‘God of Surprises’ that some of us may have read and been inspired by. God is a beckoning word – what did Gerard Hughes mean by that phrase?
In the Christian faith, in the use of the word ‘God’ there’s always a sense of invitation. ‘God’ is not a neutral, take-it-or-leave-it word, a word to be looked at objectively as a philosopher might, to be walked round and observed, prodded and pocked! The Bible knows nothing of that use of the word ‘God’. Instead, on every page of the Bible there’s an invitation – an invitation to enter into a relationship with God and grow in our understanding and experience.
‘Come’, we heard from the book of Proverbs, ‘eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’ ‘Come’ we heard the psalmist say. ‘Come’, we heard Jesus say, ‘I am the living bread.’ What sense can we make of this?
One of the delights about this parish is this building. It has not just an architectural quality to it but also a spiritual quality. At its simplest people say to me that it ‘feels special’ others say that the stones have been soaked in the prayers of generations of people who’ve worshipped here.
It’s intriguing how this has come about! And raises the question about whether we have ‘spiritual senses’ or at least the capacity to ‘feel’ things spiritual.
The Bible would suggest that we do. It’s full of sensory terms to express our experience of God. We can go through our five senses and a scriptural passage or image will readily come to mind.
Sight – in the New Testament Saint Paul famously writes: ‘Now we see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face’. Sight plays a part in our experience of God – yes, now through a glass darkly, but the goal is that we shall see face to face.
The most common spiritual sense referred to is probably hearing, hearing God speak, whether in the still small voice that Elijah hears, or in the words of Jesus ‘if you have ears to hear’. The assumption is clear – we can in some way hear God speak.
Smell is also referred to in our sense of God’s presence, often using the imagery of incense and savouring God’s presence rather like the smell of freshly baked bread! Smell too plays a part in our experience of God.
It’s quite common to hear people talk about being touched by God or, in referring to someone else that they’ve been touched by God. We use that kind of language all the time.
In the psalms the human spirit reaches out to touch the Lord, and in the prophet Isaiah the Lord touches the prophet’s lips with a burning coal. Touch too has a part to play in our experience of God.
And finally taste which is commonly referred to as a spiritual sense: ‘O taste and see how gracious the Lord is’the psalmist writes. The imagery used in our readings today is all about taste – the bread, the wine – and of course at every Eucharist we come and receive the bread and the wine. We can and do taste the Lord.
Maybe we do have spiritual senses in addition to our physical senses! Certainly this idea was developed very early on in Christianity by the theologian Origen, living in the 2nd century in Egypt. Just as we have five physical senses so he suggested we have five spiritual senses.
And as the centuries of Christian thought and experience went on so too did the understanding develop of these spiritual senses that we use to experience God.
In particular it was felt that there is some sense of progression amongst the five spiritual senses. Vision and sound reveal things that are at some distance from us, smell has to be closer, touch more so, and of course taste closest of all.
And that idea, that there is a progression, can be very helpful particularly when thinking about God beckoning us to draw closer – come!
We move in our spiritual life from seeing and hearing – a knowledge that we get of God from some distance away – to a more intimate knowledge of God which we experience particularly through the spiritual senses of touch and taste.
God is a beckoning word – but words are never easy to find to express our experience of this!
So let me end with St Augustine and his attempt to express our ‘sense’ of God’s presence. It’s taken from his most famous book ‘The Confessions’.
St Augustine uses the language of the spiritual senses to express that ‘feel’ for God’s presence that lies beyond all our senses, both physical and spiritual! He writes:
‘But what do I love, O God, when I love Thee?
Not the beauty of a body, nor the rhythm of moving time. Not the splendour of the light, which is so dear to the eyes. Not the fragrance of flowers, balms and spices.
Not manna and not honey; not the bodily members which are so treasured by carnal embrace.
None of this do I love when I love my God.
And yet I do love a light and a sound and a fragrance and a delicacy and an embrace, when I love my God, who is light and sound and fragrance and delicacy and embrace to my interior being.
There my soul receives a radiance that no space can grasp; there something resounds which no time can take away; there something gives a fragrance which no wind can dissipate;
there something is savoured which is not consumed by eating;
there something is embraced which is never fully exhausted.
This is what I love when I love my God.’