Sensory Impressions of Mormonism

I’ve just returned home from a lovely ten day southern holiday with my family.  As well as being a respite from this year’s unending Canadian snow, the vacation afforded some much appreciated time to catch up on some fiction reading.  My favourite book of the bunch was Yann Martel’s award winning novel, Life of Pi .

Life of Pi tells the story of a sixteen year old Indian boy who survives the sinking of a cargo ship on his way to Canada.  His companions, in the lifeboat that saves him, are a hyena, an orang-utan, a zebra with a broken leg and a 450 pound Royal Bengal tiger.  While it may sound like the makings of a Disney movie, it is a moving, beautiful story.

One of the more powerful themes of this book is Pi’s simple quest to find God and to love Him.  He says, "We are all born like Catholics aren’t we — in limbo, without religion, until some figure introduces us to God?  After that meeting the matter ends for most of us.  If there is a change, it is usually for the lesser rather than the greater, many people seem to lose God along life’s way.  This was not my case … A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed was sown in me and left to germinate.  It has never stopped growing since that day."

Through his love for God, the young teenager becomes a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim.  He is perplexed by the consternation of those around him.  After all, didn’t "Bapu Gandhi" say that all religions are true?  In describing his first and earliest spiritual encounters, Pi declares:

"I am a Hindu because of sculptured cones of red kumkum powder and baskets of yellow tumeric nuggets, because of garlands of flowers and pieces of broken coconut, because of the clanging of bells to announce one’s arrival to God, because of the whine of the reedy nadaswaram and the beating of drums, because of the patter of bare feet against stone floors down dark corridors pierced by shafts of sunlight, because of the fragrance of incense, because of flames of arati lamps circling in the darkness, because of bhajans being sweetly sung, because of elephants standing around to bless, because of colourful murals telling colourful stories, because of foreheads carrying, variously signifed, the same word — faith.  I became loyal to these sense impressions even before I knew what they meant or what they were for.  It is my heart that commands me so."

I was struck not only by the exotic descriptiveness of this passage, but also by the sensory nature of his religious experience.  I wondered what are the sensory impressions of Mormonism?  (Nate Oman seems to have caught some of the scent, particularly in comment # 25)  Are they more powerful and demanding of our loyalty when they come to us as children, before we even know what they mean?  What is it about our beliefs that would make us claim or reject such a religious feast for the senses?


  1. Tom Manney says:

    Thank you Jeremy for the clarification. I’m feel so embarrassed. No more posting when it’s late and I’m tired. (What I wouldn’t give for an “edit” option for my oft-clumsy blog replies.)

  2. I’ve had thoughts on this topic in recent months, actually. Kris said, “…I wondered what are the sensory impressions of Mormonism?… What is it about our beliefs that would make us claim or reject such a religious feast for the senses?”

    Steve said, “…At times I wish mormonism had more sensory trappings: incense, candles, icons; more recitations and chants. Much of our sense elements are sacred to me …I wonder if we shy away from attachments to these elements, though, out of some leftover gnostic idea that the flesh is bad, and that our physical senses are secondary to our spiritual ones. If so, that’s unfortunate IMHO…”

    I agree, Steve, and it is unfortunate. This seems so evident to me in our cultural experience. And as you know, the natural man is an enemy to God. While I’ve grown up with the belief that those sensory trappings are just that, ‘trappings’, where we should ‘…stay far away from ‘idol worshipping’, as Catherine mentioned, I personally find much appeal to the ambience of incense and candles. I’m sure I’m not alone on this, and I have to realize that the lack of such things, are very culturally based. A quick look back to our cultural roots in the church, in upstate New York, early 1800’s, rural farmers, which has it’s own Protestant history of practicality and pragmatism among the people, has clearly made it’s way into our aesthetic experience in the church.

    Tom Manney said, “I appreciate the Catholic beauty of our temples, but I’m not too fond of the Protestant plainness of our meetinghouses. “

    Can we be any more practical than having basketball hoops at each end of our “cultural hall”, which regularly serves the triple treat of providing the space for religious services during a Stake Conference, a Stake or Young Adult dance, and don’t forget the receptions, with the crystal pink punch! This is all fine stuff, I’m not knocking it by any means. It’s just a comment on the reality that we are such a very utilitarian people, for whom the true beauty of candlelight cannot be enjoyed in the building, as part of any meeting, as I’m sure due to obvious liability/safety issues. Such a bummer.

    As a visual thinker, and a very aesthetically driven person, I must acknowledge the appeal that these other religious/cultural practices have on me, yet at the same time, I recognize that as a Church, we are about salvation, not pondering the imponderable.

  3. Yann Martel is a pompous a–. Really, he’s too much.

  4. danithew says:

    Lizzy, I thought that idea about making homemade bread for the sacrament and deliberately asking the priests to break the bread into large pieces was a remarkable idea. The only concern I might have is that a child might try to swallow one whole and choke … but except for that possibility I just think that was a very interesting, neat idea.

    Lizzy’s statement about homemade bread being used for the sacrament reminded me of some of the Jewish sabbath and pre-sabbath traditions that I observed. The Jews have a special bread that they make for the sabbath, called challah. It tends to be slightly sweet and sometimes has raisins baked into it. Besides that it is braided and rubbed with a very light glaze of some sort that makes it gleam (at least that’s my take on it).

    Also, the more orthodox or traditional Jews tend to buy fresh-cut flowers for the Sabbath table and a bottle of wine.

    The whole idea was to greet the Sabbath like a queen. And I believe that at the very beginning of the sabbath and end of the sabbath there are special ceremonies to usher in the sabbath and usher it out. I think ushering it in utilizes lighting a candle and ushering it out involves smelling mint or herbs of some sort.

  5. Actually “inwardly focused” probably isn’t what I mean. I think it’s that I’m language centric, I’m very language focused, visual and other sense focused things go right on past me. A lot.

  6. Arturo Toscanini says:

    I’m very much the same way. For example, I find written instructions to make more sense than maps.

  7. I guess I just mean that I’m not a very sensory oriented person. I’ve never thought about the smells of spiritual things. It would never even occur to me to do so. It’s interesting to me to have someone else point out the connections, because it’s unlikely I’d ever do so myself. Since I’m so inwardly focused most of the time.

  8. Arturo Toscanini says:

    The sensuous element of Mormonism dropped out of the religion with the end of celestial plural marriage. Since President Woodruff ditched polygamy, our leaders have failed to devise an adequate replacement to satisfy the senses.

  9. I would seriously never think of these things. I love reading about how other peoples minds work though. That’s why I love fiction, and blogs.

  10. Arturo Toscanini says:

    Lisa, what do you mean, “these things”? Can you be more specific?

  11. To avoid too much attention from pervs, we should perhaps make clear a distinction between “sensory” or “sensorial” and “sensual,” since the latter often conveys a sexual element that the former two do not (necessarily) connote. (The sensory experiences in the temple that Tom describes, for example, might be misconstrued if described as “sensual.”)

  12. Tom Manney says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for the beautiful post. It’s too bad you can’t remember who said that because I would like to read the original text.

    Without a doubt the most sensual religious experience for me is baptism. You walk fully clothed into water, sometimes relaxingly warm, sometimes bitingly cold, immersing every fold and contour of your body up to the navel; you feel the water at first weigh down your cotton-poly jumpsuit and then buoy it up, making it swirl around lazily; you’re lain backwards into the water, then lifted back out, all in a sudden loud rush — that’s a pretty sensual experience. Unfortunately, at best I remember the chlorine smell of a temple font and the muted, odd acoustics of a baptistry.

    And that’s not even touching (no pun intended) washings and anointings, which can get a little too sensual for comfort.

    The temple is profoundly sensual, and yet it is also a profoundly spiritual place too. I like that harmony. I think it’s the way God intended it.

    Another sensual impression of Mormonism is the weight of hands on your head when you receive a blessing. That can be a very heavy feel, and it feels strong and encouraging, and sometimes it feels tired and urgent.

    I can also think of a lot of sensory memories from my mission.

    As a Saint who grew up in the American West, however, mostly when I think of church, I think of sterile, odorless chapels with neutral tones. Architecture affects mood. I appreciate the Catholic beauty of our temples, but I’m not too fond of the Protestant plainness of our meetinghouses.

  13. Going along with what Steve said in his comment, I also think the sacrament plays an important role in our sensor connections to God.

    When my father was a Bishop, he felt that the sacrament experience went by too fast, so every couple of months, he had certain members in the ward make home-made bread. He then had the priest brake it into large peices, requiring at least two bites.

    Everyone loved this. And it has made a big difference in how I experience the sacrament now.

  14. Huh. I’ve visited several other denonimations with friends, and I have yet to see Mormons handshake less. In fact, the passing-of-the-peace-handshake (in all it’s variations) may make many other congregations ahead of us in the handshaking department.

    Sometimes I wish we’ do something similar in our services, especially wards that have a lot of people moving in/out or visitors.

  15. Sorry, that last comment was me, not my wife. I of course do not permit her to put up chairs, since that is a priesthood duty.

  16. Handshakes.

    Nobody shakes hands as well or as often or as freely as a Latter-day Saint.

    Or as elaborately:
    * The circle handshake, seen at confirmations, setting-aparts, and ordinations.
    * The two-handed bishop’s handshake.
    * The handshake-to-hug.
    * The stiff-armed missionary/other-gender-member handshake.

    One wonders how much of this handshaking culture eminates from the temple.

    –The Practical Mormon, steadying the ark at

  17. Though sensory experiences are great, I mean to say that, on the theological level, senses are a much lower level of religious experience.

    But in Mormonism the line between the sensory and the spiritual is much blurrier than in other faiths. After all, Mormons believe that spirit is “matter, but more refined.” So spirituality and sensoriality aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

    I personally can’t completely extricate the spiritual impact of, say, a powerful stake conference talk, and the communality and aural affect of the folding chairs as we noisily clear them from the gym afterwards.

  18. I am very into the senses. My sisters and I love the movie Amelie (I know, rated R, evil, but it’s french, what did you expect?). For anyone that has seen the movie, you are familiar with the character development it uses by listing their likes and dislikes as they enter the story. IE: Mother dislikes waking up with pillow wrinkles on her face, she likes emptying out her purse, cleaning it and putting everything back in. Amelie likes the feeling of grain running through her fingers, as do I. My sisters and I have developed a game of notifying each other when we discover one of these obscure tendencies to like or dislike in our lives. My little sister loves the sound of high heels on a hard floor (especially in large open spaces where it echos. Makes her feel important), Jessica and I like rubbing our lips against surfaces in order to feel their texture (hair, etc.). Anyways, we are very into sights and sounds and textures, which I believe is a large part of the life experience, and appreciating more than anything, God’s creations. I have heard it said several times that while experiencing his creations such as nature, that we are apt to be subject to the spirit as well. I truly believe that. How else to you explain the calming I think just about everyone feels while in the mountains, or a lone beach.

    On the other hand, I think the tendency to avoid depending on sensory in order to experience the spirit is due to the fact that we are warned not to seek out spiritual experiences to persistantly. Something about the adversary taking over when he sees the oppurtunity to mislead us. I could tell you who said it, but I forgot, so I won’t.

  19. catherine says:

    I wonder if for some people, and some churches, the sensory experiences are what help to usher in the spirit that they feel. I know that I’ve sat in sacrament meetings and classes where I have or have not felt the Spirit; I don’t think it’s an automatic given. I have friends in other denominations that definitely feel like they feel the Spirit, and sometimes it is in the incense and icons and things that help them to do that.

    I was always under the impression, and perhaps mistakenly so, that we didn’t use icons, for instance, in our religious services in order to stay far away from ‘idol worshipping’ (i.e. why we don’t hang crosses in our chapels). That’s just what I picked up somehow along the way.

    But, I’ve always wanted to be more like Southern Baptists and shout “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” during services.

  20. Funny that a guy named RoastedTomatoes would comment on how much Mormons focus on food as a sensual outlet. FWIW, I think I agree with the observation. One fellow’s homemade salsa is sometimes the only reason I attend ward potlucks. If they served it after church, I think attendance would improve dramatically.

  21. Well, I think that food is important, but more as part of the culture not our worship. Ward potlucks are more communal experiences for me, not religious ones.

    I like Nate’s idea about a special recipe for the sacrament bread. I think that could bring food more into the more spiritual realm.

  22. Steve Evans said: At times I wish mormonism had more sensory trappings: incense, candles, icons; more recitations and chants.

    I wonder if you perhaps want to be a Catholic? Or at least a crypto-Catholic. Plenty of incense, candles, pageantry, and so forth to go around–and, if you go the crypto-Catholic route, you can attend mass on Thursday, say, and still be an active Mormon the other six days of the week!

    In a more serious way, I´d say that I think a large part of the sense experience of being LDS has to do with food. We have a tendency to surround our most sacred events with food: cookies and punch at baptisms, receptions with funny little sandwiches after temple marriages (and, once apon a not very long ago, missionary farewells), funeral potatoes, and so forth.

  23. I tend to think that our lack of sensory experiences comes, in part, from the fact that we have the spirit. I got the sense that all the sensory experiences that Pi had substituted for the spirit. All they led him to was a general feeling that whatever god was, there was some sort of great spirit in the sky. I never felt like Pi ever really thought things out religously and that if he had, he would have become kind of confused.

    Though sensory experiences are great, I mean to say that, on the theological level, senses are a much lower level of religious experience. The spirit makes up for it and more.

  24. I love this! Some great thoughts in here (and it’s about time you got to Life of Pi). At times I wish mormonism had more sensory trappings: incense, candles, icons; more recitations and chants. Much of our sense elements are sacred to me — the feel of my temple clothing, for example, the little shreds of bread or the little lip on the clear plastic sacrament cups (or the crinkled paper, depending on the week). Touch is important to mormons, I think.

    I wonder if we shy away from attachments to these elements, though, out of some leftover gnostic idea that the flesh is bad, and that our physical senses are secondary to our spiritual ones. If so, that’s unfortunate IMHO.