Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Discipline of Sensuous Spirituality

"Springtime Delights"
-along a wilderness trail-

In a traditional Western Christian culture, it may seem very odd to pair the word "sensuous" with the word "spirituality." In fact to some, it may sound downright blasphemous to do this.  After all, many of us have been taught to be suspicious of our bodies and wary of the sensual world because the body and the senses might lead us into sin.  

I remember growing up seeing images of the great saints flagellating themselves with whips as a daily spiritual discipline to control the wicked urges of the body and keep at bay the dangers inherent in the sensual world - some people continue to do this even to this very day. 

Many think that the only way to go "inward" is to shut out that which is external. So If you want to be in touch with God, to pray or to meditate, you must go inside a sacred church, eyes closed, shut off from the "godless" secular world out there. 

So how can spirituality be sensuous?  I ask the question, how can a spiritual path NOT be sensuous?

Human beings are grounded in and connected with the world through our bodies, through the use of our senses. The Holy Presence abides in everything that has being, the energy of divine love flows in and through all that "is."

Instead of dissociating my "self" from the external world, the spiritual journey is one in which I intentionally connect with the world. It is here, planted and grounded in the world of "senses," that  I encounter the living Holy Presence.   

The Buddhist practice of mindfulness has been so very helpful as a discipline for me to "connect, " to pay attention to the present moment with all my senses awake and alert to all that "is." And in doing so, I always encounter that which is greater than me.

While this Buddhist wisdom has been very helpful to me on my path, I have also come to realize that an authentic "sensuous spirituality" is likewise at the core of my own Christian tradition. 

Living here in the desert,  I have come to see that sensuous spirituality was at the very heart of the dally life of those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers who lived in a wilderness much like the one I live in. In fact, the more I read about them, they are looking more and more "Buddhist" to me in the way they follow the path of Jesus.

Since these ancient monks lived simple lives and dwelt in caves and huts away from the city, you might think they were trying to avoid the world.  The opposite is true. They moved out to the desert in order to be planted in and grounded in the world. 

They saw no distinction between the sacred and the secular - believing that you don't need to go into a church to encounter "God," wherever your feet were planted was a church-a holy place filled with Holy Presence. 

Yesterday I read a wonderful commentary about the sort of "sensuous spirituality" practiced by those ancient desert monks:

They speak about paying attention in the moment -attention to what they saw with their eyes, listening attentively for the still small voice of the Spirit, sensitive to the delicate, often erotic touch of the Divine, tasting and savoring God's presence, attuned to the intoxicating fragrance of the Holy One.

It is the season of Lent - a wilderness season. For me, this is a perfect time to follow the example of my spiritual desert ancestors and more intentionally practice that "discipline of sensuous spirituality." 

I walk along a wilderness path and my senses are flooded with delight - Spring flowers on a sage bush along the rail, the distant mountains covered with snow glistening in the sunlight of a hot desert afternoon, the fragrance of freshly blooming lavender filling the pristine air. 

When evening comes along, as the first stars appear in the night skies, I hear the songbirds in the palm trees just outside my house. They will also wake me up at the break of day as they sing to greet the dawn -the melody so hauntingly beautiful. 

As the sun rises over the Eastern mountains, I sit quietly in my garden and as always, I am visited by the butterflies and hummingbirds coming to drink from the gurgling fountain. I rise from my chair and stand beside the birds with their fluttering wings. I touch the cool water from the fountain and put it to my lips.

It is all so sensuous, so erotic, so intoxicating. 

Holy, Holy, Holy!



  1. Even in movement,— walking, bending, twisting, stretching, everything you do in life— if done in a sensual manner, you'll have less muscle fatigue with more stamina, less pain and soreness and you'll have fun. Let alone making you more attractive. People who practice yoga know this. Try it! Strut across the floor in a sensual manner and listen to the comments: "Why George, what have you done to yourself, you're looking so handsome lately." Love this post.