Can our five senses help us to find God? In the years before his baptism, Augustine had come to recognize that God cannot be found among the things of this world, because God himself has no bodily form nor any kind of materiality (see Conf. 6.3.4, 7.1–4, and 7.20). God himself cannot be sensed as we might sense a spectacular mountainous terrain or a delicious meal. In fact, our encounter with God, Augustine suggests, lies principally within our minds, specifically within our memory (Conf. 10.24.35–26.37).

Nevertheless, early in Book 10 of the Confessions, Augustine describes the love of God with profoundly sensory language, writing, “I do love a kind of light, a kind of voice, a certain fragrance, a food and an embrace, when I love my God: a light, voice, fragrance, food and embrace for my inmost self” (Conf. 10.6.8, tr. Boulding). For Augustine, though we cannot sense God with our bodily senses, the experience of God—through what are often called the spiritual senses—somehow both engages and exceeds our ordinary sense experiences. In this way, God provides a kind of holistic satisfaction that far exceeds any other bodily experience.

This profoundly sensory description of the encounter with God raises a challenging question for us as readers of the Confessions. If God is, in some way, experienced body and soul, what should we make of our sensory experiences in this world? Do the pleasures we find in this world help us in our encounter with God or draw us away from God? If sensory pleasures can lead us astray from God into a life of sin, as they did for Augustine, does our search for God demand that we ignore sense experiences and avoid the pleasures that arise with them? We find in Book 10 that Augustine’s answer is not so blunt, as he suggests that the senses serve both as a point of conflict for us and as an arena for redemption.

By Augustine’s account, it was in large part due to his inordinate love for sensory pleasures that he had strayed so far from God, restlessly searching for happiness but finding only his own self-destruction. He had long experienced the struggle that was universal among humanity, in which the inordinate desires for the things of this world conflict with the inborn and overarching desire for the God who is their creator. As he says in the famous prayer at the heart of Book 10, “You were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong, I, misshapen” (Conf. 10.27.38). Though the God he was seeking had always dwelt within him, his own misshapenness caused him instead to become distracted and obsessed with the pleasures granted by the good and beautiful things of the world. In his search for happiness, he had become miserable.

However, after detailing his journey through such inordinate desires in Books 1–9, Augustine greets readers with a striking truth in Book 10. The story of his conversion is not simply an account of his past travails through the misery of sin and the mercy of grace, culminating in his baptism. In truth, the change wrought in him by baptism has yet to be brought to perfection. Augustine’s conversion—much like our own—remains present, ongoing, and incomplete, and he therefore repeatedly begs for God’s continued work within him (Conf. 10.1.1, 29.40, 42.70, among others). And, as he reveals with a kind of examination of conscience, even his own struggles against sensory pleasures have not entirely subsided.

Before evaluating the sinful tendencies that remain in his life, Augustine invokes a passage from the First Letter of John, writing, “Quite certainly you command me to refrain from concupiscence of the flesh and concupiscence of the eyes and worldly pride” (Conf. 10.30.41; cf. 1 Jn 2:16). With the first of these categories, the concupiscence of the flesh, Augustine examines the fallen and excessive desires that persist in each of his five senses (Conf. 10.30.41–34.53). From this examination, it becomes clear that neither the sense faculties in themselves nor the realities sensed by these faculties are problematic; rather, our use of the faculties is distorted by concupiscence, through which we prefer the beautiful things of the world to God. He himself still bears in his dreams the lingering images and desires from lustful habits, he struggles against the gluttonous enjoyment of food through the opposed practice of fasting, and the pleasant melodies of hymns sometimes draw his enjoyment rather than the God who is spoken of through them (10.30.41, 31.44, 33.49). Clearly, the desires of the senses can lead us astray if we focus upon the sensuous enjoyment alone, especially when it is opposed to morality, but as he acknowledges of hymns, the senses are capable, too, of leading us to greater devotion to God.

The joys and pleasures of this world can in fact aid us in our search for the immaterial God, at least when they are properly moderated. Early in Book 10, Augustine explains that he had searched for God among the earth, its creatures, and even his very self with his bodily senses, but God could not be found among them. Instead, each part of Creation proclaimed to him by the beauty of its nature, “‘We are not God,’ and ‘He made us’” (Conf. 10.6.9). Though it took years for him to realize it, Augustine came to see that the beautiful things of the world are indeed to be received in the senses and loved for their beauty, but only because the nature of their created beauty is to point us to the uncreated Beauty of God.

All of creation, Augustine recognizes, is exceedingly good (Conf. 10.34.51; cf. Gen. 1:31), but the things of creation have to be received rightly. Like his distinction between the love of use and the love of enjoyment in On Christian Doctrine (1.3–5), the nature of the beauty and goodness of creatures is that they are indeed to be loved, but ultimately as things that lead us to love God above all. Though the beauty of creation is apparent to all, “only they understand who test the voice heard outwardly against the truth within” (Conf. 10.6.10). To partake of the world rightly, then, is to see it in accord with our faith in the Truth that is God himself. Instead of the blindness, deafness, and impotence that comes through sin, our sense experiences of the natural world serve as encounters with signposts that point beyond themselves to God.

What hope do we have, then, as we linger in concupiscence? How can our excessive desire for beautiful sights, sumptuous foods, and other physical pleasures be moderated? How can we retrain our gaze to turn from the pleasant scenes before us to the God who is the source of its beauty? As Augustine recognizes in the final part of the book, the concupiscence and pride that have so distorted our lives can only be healed by Christ. Christ mediates on our behalf by taking on our physicality, teaching us, and healing our infirmities by his grace, thereby providing us with the grounds for sure hope (Conf. 10.42.69–70). In Christ, Augustine acknowledges, God has acted within him, “transforming my soul by faith and your sacrament” (Conf. 10.3.4). He doesn’t just provide the interior means by which we might believe in him in all that we do; he also provides a physical mode for retraining our minds upon God.

It is, I think, no accident that Augustine highlights more than once in this book the Eucharistic sacrament which he dispenses as a priest. As he says in discussing the mediating sacrifice of Christ, “I am mindful of my ransom. I eat it, I drink it, I dispense it to others, and as a poor man I long to be filled with it among those who are fed and feasted” (Conf. 10.42.70). In the sacraments, most especially the Eucharist, God transforms our souls and retrains our senses so that we might receive physical realities and experience God and his work through it. It is easy for our desires for sensory pleasure to dominate us, for us to become more focused upon the gluttonous, the lustful, and the vainglorious activities of this world, yet it is through the humility of Christ and his sacraments that we may come to be more detached and refocused on our ultimate goal. God works in the midst of the material to draw our hearts back to himself, breaking through our blindness and deafness so that we can be reoriented to himself in all things (Conf. 10.27.38). It is by this retraining through grace that we embodied creatures can properly receive the love that is beyond every sense experience.