Sensual Prayer: a book review

The spiritual life is opening ourselves to God. Writers on prayer and contemplatives have urged us to tune our beings to God, to kneel in his presence and receive good things from him. Yet sometimes we don’t sense God. Sometimes we don’t open ourselves up to him because we are too busy grasping at everything else.

Pastor and author Greg Paul wrote Simply Open: A Guide to Experiencing God in the Everyday to lead us to  the land of greater openness. He wrote this book after a sabbatical from his pastorate at an urban Toronto church when he had spent time in prayer at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and hiking on the coast of Cornwall (21-2). Simply Open records his reflections, insights and prayer on opening the senses, mind and heart up to God.

A prayer provides the basic outline for this book:

  • Open my eyes that I may relase what I have seen, and so see you, see myself through your eyes, and truly see others.
  • Open my ears, that I may release what I have heard, and so hear you, become a listener, and truly hear others.
  • Open my nostrils, that I may release what I have inhaled, and so breathe in your fragrance, be delighted by it, and breath your Spirit upon others.
  • Open my mouth, that I may release what I have tasted, and so taste your goodness, be made strong by the sustenance you give, and share your sustaining grace with others.
  • Open my hands, that I may release what I have held, and so hold what you give me, be molded by your touch, and reach out to others.
  • Open my mind, that I  may release what I have understood, and so understand you understand myself, and understand others. 
  • Open my heart, that I may release what I have loved, and so receive your love for me, love you more deeply, and truly love others. (17)

Each of the sections above follows a fourfold structure: releasing, receiving, becoming, doing. So in each chapter,Greg unfolds our sense experience, the unhealthy things we need to let go in order to receive from God so that we may be transformed into those who do his will.  His chapter on ‘opening our eyes’ discusses the way our culture gives us far more than an eyeful. For example, objectification of women creates body image issues and pornography hurts both the viewer and the viewed (30-31). When we let go of our false images, then we begin seeing as God sees–people created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Similarly, our inability to hear God is because of the cacophony that surrounds us. Receiving from God and learning to hear his voice means learning to say no to competing voices (59).

Greg offers similar reflections on the other senses. The nose (sense of smell), he ties to breath and talks about how we can open ourselves up to the Spirit (God’s breath/wind). Taste has us examine the variety of fare that we feed ourselves with, those in our midst who are starving and the sacramental enjoyment of God’s good things.  Our touch is how we learn love and form meaningful attachments, but  is also a source of wounds we need to release. Finally Greg  wants us to move to having  the ‘mind of Christ’ and hearts open to give and receive love.

In his last chapter Greg acknowledges that our spiritual senses are not as compartmentalized or linear as the above framework may suggest, “We will find that inhaling a particular fragrance, and receiving it as a gift of God’s Spirit, will cause us to hear and see things differently; we may realize that we need to let go of a way of thinking, and thus find our hearts drawn to loving someone previously unnoticed (211). What Greg Paul’s discussion of each of the senses, heart and mind do, is allow us to see the holistic and inclusive nature of spirituality and prayer. The abundant life is a sensual one–full of beauty and sound, tastes and wonders, smells and memory, thinking and love. By seeking to open up each  facet to God, we are able to offer our whole self to Him.

I have been a ‘fan’ of Greg since reading God in an Alley a number of years ago. What impressed me about that book was his hospitality to and humanizing of those on the margins (he pastors a church that reaches out in some beautiful ways).  This book was more like Close Enough to Hear God Breathe  (another book of his on prayer) than God in the Alley. But this isn’t just a book about prayer and the spiritual life. Greg knows that it is as we open ourselves up to God, we experience profound change in how we relate to others. The contemplative life leads to the active life (releasing and receiving lead to becoming and doing). I give this book five stars ★★★★★

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