Every year it begins right after Halloween, when the stores start erecting their window displays for the maelstrom of shopping that is about to descend on us. I’m talking about the annual complaints from friends, relatives and coworkers that the Christmas season has become “so commercialized” and that it has “lost its spirituality”. I often hear these statements coming from the mouths of people who rarely, if ever, set foot inside a church or a temple throughout the rest of the year.
I am not religious in any formal or organized sense of the word, but I believe that having a sense of spirituality, a feeling of connection to the mysterious, transcendent aspect of our existence, is vitally important to the living of a rich, fulfilled life. I believe that we are inundated with holiness every day of our lives, if we only know how to recognize it. The way to recognize it is through using the wondrous gifts that the Creator has bestowed upon us: I’m talking about the five senses.
In her commentary on the book of Chinese philosophy known as the Tao Te Ching, novelist Ursula LeGuin explains that one of the ideas implicit in Lao Tzu’s teachings is that those who “ignore the body and live in the head…are both dangerous and in danger”. The message Lao Tzu imparts, says LeGuin, is “enjoy your life; live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of heaven”. If we believe this to be true, then everything that surrounds us is a potential source of spiritual enlightenment. Walking through the woods, surrounded by dripping fir trees, listening to Mozart, or emotionally connected sex are all potentially acts of spiritual enlightenment if they awaken us to the magic and the mystery that surrounds us. When we truly connect with the world about us we live, to borrow a phrase from the Irish rock band The Waterboys, in a “church not made with hands”.
In her beautifully written and mind-altering book A Natural History of the Senses, poet and essayist Diane Ackerman agrees that it is the experience of our flesh and bone selves that connects us to the world. “Our several senses”, she says, “which feel so personal and impromptu…reach far beyond us…an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived…to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance…the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth” (308).
When we learn to truly appreciate the everyday magic in our lives, we give ourselves the opportunity of restoring that lost sense of spiritual transcendence to the upcoming holiday season. After all, before they were taken over by the agenda of the Catholic Church, the pagan Winter Solstice revelries were a celebration of the bounty of nature appreciated through the senses. They were a time of feasting, music, and fellowship–not so different from our Yuletide celebrations of today. When you notice the proliferation of cooking shows on television these days, you can see that the preparation and sharing of food, in particular, has once again become an expression of human vitality and connectedness to each other and to the world.
As Diane Ackerman points out, food is first experienced in the form of milk from our mother’s breast, “accompanied by love and affection, stroking, a sense of security, warmth and well-being, our first intense feelings of pleasure”. It is amongst our first assurances that we will find nourishment in the world around us. Understandably, it takes on great resonance, becoming a “big source of pleasure” for most of us, a “complex realm of satisfaction both physiological and emotional”.
Ackerman also points out that food is intimately connected to and symbolic of our relationships with others. In all cultures, eating together is an act of sharing and trust: “A companion is ‘one who eats bread with another'”. Also, as Ackerman says, “sexual hunger and physical hunger have always been allies”. When we make love, we “play at devouring each other, digesting each other, we nurse on each other, drink each other’s fluids”. When we eat, we bring the outside world inside our bodies, incorporating it into ourselves.
We are, for better or worse, defined by the food we eat, the people we touch, the community we were born into. These, above all, are the elements that make up a good life. Perhaps if we reflect on this as we sit down to Christmas dinner with our friends and relatives, we will be able to regain some sense of the sacredness that our forays to the shopping malls have taken from us.
Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Random House, 1990.
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching: A Book About The Way and the Power of The Way. Ed. Ursula K. LeGuin. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc., 1997.