Using Our Senses to Focus on Beauty

Tips for finding a more intimate path to God

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ParadiseFall is my favorite time of year. It is difficult to ignore the transformation happening around me. The chill in the air, the sight of the trees, the smell and taste of pumpkin and apple cider, as well as the sound of crackling leaves under your feet, call attention to the reality that something is different. Your senses are awakened to experience the beauty that surrounds you.

This past summer, I was gifted by a vacation to the Greek islands and Northern Italy. All my senses were awakened to the beauty of the land, the food, the sound of diverse languages and the people. While traveling, I noticed something else. In each town, village or city, we typically saw a church at the center. It was built on the highest point or in the center of the community, with a large gathering space outside the front doors. There are no words to describe the beauty of these churches. The exteriors were works of art; they drew your eyes and your heart to the heavens. I learned two things from the organization of the physical structures of these towns. First, the location of the churches spoke loudly that God was at the center of their lives, both individually and communally. Second, the walls that surrounded the towns spoke dramatically to the real fear that was always present — the community understood their existence was perilous.

Our existence is perilous, as well. The threats of nuclear war, climate change and the escalating violence that seems to touch us all is the cause of much conscious or unconscious fear. We cannot build physical walls to protect us. How do we accompany adults, adolescents and children as they live in this situation? Perhaps we should look to our ancestors.

The uncertainty and fear that hallmarked their lives helped them understand that they did not have control. What kept things in balance was their God-given capacity to see beauty in the world. It moved them to create something beautiful for the glory of God. The creation of these churches was an expression of their trust. God, in his goodness, would redeem all things. The placement of the church was an unmistakable choice to signify that the only way to deal with their lives was to keep God at the center.

We must proclaim that truth in the here and now. Do we challenge our communities to name their fears? In homilies, small faith groups and faith formation sessions, are we helping people bring their fears out of the darkness into the light? While some people might say, “I come here to be uplifted” or “I don’t want to hear depressing thoughts,” we must be convicted that Jesus is the Light of the World. When we bring things out of the darkness, Christ has the power to redeem them. And I believe that he does so by telling us to focus on beauty!

“Look at the birds in the sky” (Mt 6:26). Do you not think that Jesus would have added the music of Mozart or Andrew Loyd Weber, the art of Michaelangelo or Monet, the aroma of his mother’s meal or of a cinnabun, the touch of a newborn’s skin or a parent’s embrace of comfort?

Providing space and time for your flock to learn to focus on beauty is indeed a path to a more intimate relationship with Christ. Focusing on a different sense would be a version of beauty boot camp.

Sight — Before Mass ask people to focus on the most beautiful thing they see in the worship space. At home: Each day find something beautiful in your home and spend five minutes with it.

Hearing — During Mass identify the most beautiful thing they hear. At home: Each day make note of the most beautiful sound you have heard

Touch — Before Mass direct the community to recall the most beautiful experience they have had of touch (embrace, handshake, kiss, holding their child) and sit with it. At home: Be conscious of the most significant touch they offered or received that day.

Smell — Place hypoallergenic incense or the aroma of bread directly out of the oven in the church. At home: Take a walk in the neighborhood and focus on the smells as you walk

Taste — During the homily, ask the community when receiving Communion to focus on the taste of the Eucharist in their mouths. At home: Discuss the words, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

La vita e bella! Meet someone on the road in a place of beauty and walk with them to Christ. 

DR. JO ANN PARADISE is a national speaker, writer and thought leader in the field of faith formation.

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