God’s inexhaustible poetry comes to me in five languages: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. All the rest is interpretation – literary criticism, as it were, not the poetry itself. Poetry resists translation. It can be fully experienced only in its original language. This is all the more true of the divine poetry of sensuousness. How then could I make sense of life if not through my senses?

What an infinite array of things to touch, from the wet grass under my bare feet in the morning, to the sun-warmed boulders against which I lean when the evening turns cool.

Photo by Dorné Marting/Unsplash

When and to what do your senses respond most readily? If I ask myself this question, I think immediately of working in the garden. The hermitage where I am privileged to live for the better part of each year has a small garden. For fragrance, I grow jasmine, pineapple mint, sage, thyme, and eight different kinds of lavender. What abundance of delightful smells on so small a patch of ground! And what variety of sounds: spring rain, autumn wind, all year around the birds – mourning dove, blue jay, and wren; the hawk’s sharp cry at noon and the owl’s hooting at nightfall – the sound the yard-broom makes on gravel, wind chimes, and the creaking garden gate. Who could translate the taste of strawberry or fig into words? What an infinite array of things to touch, from the wet grass under my bare feet in the morning, to the sun-warmed boulders against which I lean when the evening turns cool. My eyes go back and forth between the near and the far: the golden metallic beetle lost among rose petals; the immense expanse of the Pacific, rising from below the cliff on which this hermitage is perched to the far-off horizon where sea and sky meet in mist.

Yes, I admit it. To have a place of solitude like this is an inestimable gift. It makes it easy to let the heart expand, to let the sense wake up, one by one, to come alive with fresh vitality. Yet, whatever our circumstances, we need to somehow set aside a time and a place for this kind of experience. It is a necessity in everyone’s life, not a luxury. What comes alive in those moments is more than eyes or ears; our heart listens and rises to respond. Until I attune my senses, my heart remains dull, sleepy, half dead. In the measure in which my heart wakes up, I hear the challenge to rise to my responsibility.

We tend to overlook the close connection between responsiveness and responsibility, between sensuousness and social challenge. Outside and inside are of one piece. As we learn to really look with our eyes, we begin to look with our heart also. We begin to face what we might prefer to overlook, begin to see what is going on in this world of ours. As we learn to listen with our ears, our heart begins to hear the cry of the oppressed. We might begin to smell that there is “something foul in the State of Denmark,” might sit down at table and taste the sweet and salty tears of the exploited which we import together with coffee and bananas. To be in touch with one’s body is to be in touch with the world — that includes the Third World and all other areas with which our dull hearts are conveniently out of touch. No wonder that those in power, those interested in maintaining the status quo, look askance at anything that helps people come to their senses.

Grateful living is a celebration of the universal give-and-take of life, a limitless “yes” to belonging.

In my travels I notice how easy it is to lose attentiveness. Over-saturation of our sense tends to dim our alertness.

A deluge of sense impressions tends to distract the heart from single-minded attention. This gives me a new appreciation for the hermitage, a fresh understanding of what solitude is all about. The hermit – the hermit in each of us – does not run away from the world, but seeks that Still Point within, where the heart beat of the world can be heard. All of us – each in a different measure – have need of solitude, because we need to cultivate mindfulness.

How shall we do this in practice? Is there a method for cultivating mindfulness? Yes, there are many methods. The one I have chosen is gratefulness. Gratefulness can be practiced, cultivated, learned. And as we grow in gratefulness, we grow in mindfulness. Before I open my eyes in the morning, I remind myself that I have eyes to see, while millions of my brothers and sisters are blind – most of them on account of conditions that could be improved if our human family would come to its senses and spend its resources reasonably, equitably. If I open my eyes with this thought, chances are that I will be more grateful for the gift of sight and more alert to the needs of those who lack that gift. Before I turn off the light in the evening, I jot down in my pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been grateful. I have done this for years, and the supply still seems inexhaustible.

Gratefulness brings joy to my life. How could I find joy in what I take for granted? So I stop “taking for granted, “ and there is no end to the surprises I find. A grateful attitude is a creative one, because, in the final analysis, opportunity is the gift within the gift of every given moment. Mostly this means opportunity to see and hear and smell and touch and taste with pleasure. But once I am in the habit of availing myself of opportunities, I will do so even in unpleasant situations creatively. But most importantly, gratefulness strengthens that sense of belonging….

Read the entirety of “Encounter with God through the Senses” here. The full essay was originally printed in the 1997 edition of For the Love of God: Handbook for the Spiritedited by Benjamin Shields, PhD and Richard Carlson.

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.