What place for the senses in contemplative life?
in English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth century
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The Protestant critics of the early modern Catholic Church denounced what they sometimes described as its sensual approach to the sacred. In the convents, behavioural guidebooks exhorted the Sisters to break away from their senses and to move towards a more perfect a-sensory contemplative state, where prayer no longer needed sensate perceptions to stimulate the soul. Yet the personal writings of the nuns are full of references to the senses; they provide valuable details on the individual experience of the cloistered life. Women taking the veil exchanged a sensory world for another, in which the sights, smells and sounds evoked the sacred. In prayer, they also felt with what they described as their ‘inner senses’. Although little used until now, the prism of the study of the senses provides a fascinating insight into the lived experience of women in early modern convents.

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