The Sensual Is Not Sinful (Ann Aubrey Hanson)

(Part 6 of a 6-part series based on an interview with George Hoelzeman, Medieval scholar and liturgical artist.)

Churches were manifestations of heaven on earth. They weren’t simply buildings, but were the setting for the liturgy itself, a heavenly feast. The liturgy itself was a sensual experience, with all the senses engaged to create an experience of heaven on earth: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Cathedrale de Notre Dame, Le Pue-en-Velay (Haute-Loire)

Nowadays, the experience of church is sanitized and the beauty of the senses has largely been removed, in response to the Puritan ethos that repressed the physical. The Reformation and the Counter Reformation divorced us from the physicality of encounter with God, as we shunned that which appeared sinful and inappropriate. The Enlightenment killed off any need for the physical, focusing as it did on reason and the rational.

Cathedrale Sainte Marie, Saint Bertrand de Comminges (Haute-Garonne)

But encounters with God are meant to be physical. Throughout Scriptures, any encounter with God is pre-eminently physical (in the Word made flesh, in the burning bush, in the tongues of fire). Christ became man, to encounter us in our physical realm. He was a man who needed to eat, to sleep, even to bathe. Our flesh was his flesh. And he embraced man, woman, and child — God embracing us in our very beings.

We encounter God in all things and in all people. The people of the Middle Ages understood this, says Hoelzeman. Theirs was a world of physical encounter with God, through incense (the odor of sanctity), through liturgy, through music, architecture, and art.

Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne)

We have lost something vital in our rejection of the physical, says Hoelzeman, and our embrace of the purely rational. If God had wished a merely intellectual relationship with mankind, He would never have been born Son of Man. But He was, the Word made flesh, and we, like His followers, are called to embrace Him, in prayer and worship.

(End of series. More interviews with Hoelzeman to follow: the aesthetics of Medieval art and architecture and how they beckon mankind to God.)

2 responses to “The Sensual Is Not Sinful (Ann Aubrey Hanson)

    • Rightly said, Tom. In all reform movements, there is a temptation and danger of pruning too much with unfortunate results to the tree. Something similar happened after Vatican II in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In an effort to “return to the intent of the architect” (as Josef Jungmann put it) we wound up damaging the very architecture we were intending to restore.

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