Sensescapes of Religion: A Reflective Journey Through Los Angeles Sacred Spaces

An Introduction:

A sacred space provides a holy “playground” for human communities to interact with the divine and supernatural. Although we primarily engage with spirituality through soul and mind, a sacred space allows us to also engage with our body and senses. While seemingly primitive, our physical experience through the body is one of the initial ways in which we interact with the supernatural. When we walk into a sacred space our senses are stimulated even before forming a conscious understanding. We may see, hear, or smell before we begin to pray or worship. A sacred space is a phenomenological space in which we become the subject and the divine is the object of our response. The sensescape of a sacred space is often intentionally created to encourage a heartfelt response of worship through what we see, hear, smell, touch and taste. The information we receive from our senses are additional clues we need to understand the created world and to formulate our understandings of the spiritual world. Therefore, this project is a reflective journey through how our senses may experience the supernatural and dialogue with the divine in how we experience sacred space.

Ancient Christian writers had varying theologies about the role of our body in religion. The ancient monastics, for example, were most known for their ascetic practices in denying the body any stimulants. Another thread of thought, however, believed that our senses played a vital role in our spirituality. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, believed that the organs served three main purposes, “to give life, to make that life good, and to allow life to continue…”[1] Susan Harvey in Scenting Salvation explained that according to Gregory of Nyssa, “The brain, heart, and liver were organs necessary for life. The senses were the organs that made life good. The procreative organs allowed a future.” Therefore, our senses served the purpose of helping us enjoy creation and delight in living. Constance Classen, in her book The Color of Angels, explains another theory from Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen, “The soul, the body, and the senses together form what the saint called the “three footpaths” of the human being. The soul gives life to the body and the senses. The body attracts the soul and employs the senses. The senses affect the soul and attract the body.”[2] According to this belief the body and the senses are intertwined with the soul in making us human. Consequently, Hildegard had vivid sense experiences in her visions and teachings. Similarly, St. Ignatius integrated the senses into his spiritual exercises in order to incorporate the whole body into prayer. Even the down to earth St. Francis of Assisi believed that our bodies could help us sense the world around us and consequently to know God and to know what is good.[3] Ultimately, ancient Christians commonly believed that sense experiences in this life were just a foretaste of the sense experience in the next life in which we will experience the height of our sense capacities in a heavenly realm.

The liturgy and rituals we engage in allow us to use our limited, physical selves to participate in eternal and supernatural realities. Practically, the sense experience in ritual and the response of our movements become our practiced religion. These practices become more significant and ingrained in our beliefs when our minds attach conscious meaning and memory to the associated symbols and rites. Anthropologist Edward Hall explains that human beings have two ways of receiving sensory input.[4] The first way he calls “distance receptors”. These include the senses of seeing, hearing, and smelling that begin to perceive stimulus from a distance. The second category of sensory input Hall calls the “immediate receptors”. The senses of touch and taste we can only experience by making intimate contact. Our sense receptors are the tools we use to engage in a vibrant spirituality. The experience of religion, then, is not just a study of theologies, texts, and beliefs, but the experience must also include the everyday practices of rituals and symbols. We use our rituals to acknowledge in the everyday what is good, just, and eternal. The seemingly mundane realities like what a religious community eats, the treasured items they carry, the smells and colors they produce are all essential for creating our understanding of divine realities here on earth. The following sections travel through five sacred spaces in Los Angeles, California. Although religious practices can be found in any common place, sacred spaces are often heightened spaces of sensory experiences. In each of the following spaces I reflect on one primary sense experience that facilitates spiritual practice and supernatural encounters.

Choose a Sense Experience:

Smell  Sound  Sight  Touch  Taste

[1] Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation : Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 111.

[2] Constance Classen, The Color of Angels : Cosmology, Gender, and the Aesthetic Imagination (London; New York: Routledge, 1998), 17.

[3] Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone : The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 161.

[4] Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), 40.