Thursday, March 8, 2012

God and the Senses (1): Acts of Thomas

In an earlier post, I noted that while vision and audition are the predominant aspects of sacred or divine encounters (hierophany and theophany respectively) that there is a dearth of comment from a modern perspective on the engaging of other senses.  It is not just seeing God or hearing God, but also smelling, tasting, and touching.  Taste, indeed, will play an important role in Christian encounters, largely due to the Eucharist.  But Jewish, Christian, and Islamic works (and I limit myself to these since I am most familiar with them; not because I think it is lacking elsewhere) often engage multiple senses at once when speaking of the self and God.  Of these, perhaps smell is the most interesting:  it permeates and envelops but is not enveloped by you; it is evanescent but ever-present; it may surround you, but you cannot grasp it.  Touching often gives a sense of immediacy and intimacy, and tasting is perhaps most intimate, but also can be used to discuss transformation.  Indeed, seeing and hearing are important, but mystical works engage all the senses as a fuller expression of how all-encompassing the divine or sacred encounter can be for these authors. 

I plan to make note of several passages and authors, but here is a passage from the Acts of Thomas 1.6-7, a hymn (ed. Schneemelcher and Wilson):

The maiden is the daughter of light,
Upon her stands and rests the majestic effulgence of kings,
Delightful is the sight of her,
Radiant with shining beauty.
Her garments are like spring flowers,
And a scent of sweet fragrance is diffused from them.
In the crown of her head the king is established,
Feeding with his own ambrosia those who are set him.
Truth rests upon her head,
By (the movement of) her feet she shows forth joy.
Her mouth is open, and that becomingly,

Thirty and two are they that sing her praises.
Her tongue is like the curtain of the door,
Which is flung back for those who enter in.
Which the first craftsman wrought.
Her two hands make signs and secret patterns, proclaiming the dance of the blessed aeons
Her fingers the gates of the city.
Her chamber is full of light,
Breathing a scent of balsam and all sweet herbs,
And giving out a sweet smell of myrrh and (aromatic) leaves.
Within a strewn myrtle branches and
And the are adorned with reeds.

[There is a bit here describing this as a cosmic wedding ceremony with bridesmaids and a bridegroom; and then the wedding feast]

And [they] shall linger over the feasting
of which the eternal ones are accounted worthy,
and they shall put on royal robes
and be arrayed in splendid raiment,
and both shall be in joy and exultation
and they shall glorify the Father of all,
whose proud light they received
and were enlightened by the vision of their Lord,
whose ambrosial food they received,
which has no deficiency at all,
And they drank too of his wine
which gives them neither thirst nor desire;
And they glorified and praised, with the living Spirit,
The Father of Truth and the Mother of Wisdom.

I was reading this passage in class today for my Sexuality class--partly for how wedding imagery (most of which I dropped here) has been reworked and partly for the image of the divine feminine.  For my current purposes, however, I want to note how sensual this scene is.  We do have a lot of visual imagery:  the maiden is the daughter of light; thus, there is a lot of light imagery:  effulgence, radiance, shining beauty.  She looks like spring flowers.  There is also the movement of her feet, suggesting dancing and joy.  Visual imagery also shows up in the second part:  those who have a vision of their Lord receive enlightenment--this language also shows up for the "bridegroom" (those who see him are enlightened), identifying the bridegroom with the Lord.  There is also the engagement of the ears and hearing.  Firstly, this is a hymn so would have been sung and heard.  Secondly, within this hymn is mention of the maiden's praises and songs.  So we get light, beauty, dancing, praise, and songs: a very joyous scene.  But to stop there would be to miss half of the experience:  it is also about smelling and tasting.  There is the sweet fragrance of flowers, balsam, aromatic leaves, and myrrh.  It is an experience that engages the olfactory senses as much as any other.  Moreover, food is mentioned--ambrosia and wine--and, therefore, taste.  The ambrosia (the food of the gods) and the wine are the Lord's, which, one of my students perceptively suggested today, looks like a Eucharist reference (or easily interpreted as such in an early Christian document).  So we have seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting:  the only thing missing is touching.  The smelling and tasting communicate something that seeing and hearing cannot:  immediacy and intimacy--one can see and hear from afar, but tasting and smelling (and touching if it were there) need greater proximity. 

No comments: