The Gift of Touch
Touch, when it is gentle and free of manipulation, is one of the primary ways that we know we are loved and not alone. Touch communicates that others are with us and for us, and that we belong in a community that will walk through life together despite everything.
When my mother had a severe stroke five years ago, she gave no sign of hearing anything I said to her. So I sat beside her through that dark night and held her hand, nervously listening to the beeping of machines. I wanted her to feel my presence through the warm touch of my skin on hers as she powerlessly rested in that hospital bed.
We held hands and embraced one another often in the hospital. Since then, when I return home from Ethiopia, mom rarely asks for deep conversation. But she often asks me to hug her, sometimes abruptly in the middle of us doing something else. As her body has become more fragile and weak, it seems that touch is the primary way she experiences being loved and alive.
When a dear friend suddenly passed away in the night a month after my mom’s stroke, often all our community could do was silently hold each other’s hands, embrace one another, and sit together. The words we didn’t have were communicated through the self-sharing touch of our bodies: “I’m here. I love you. We’re together. You won’t go through this alone. There is hope somehow.”
When a Chinese mentee now at UCLA walked out of a restaurant and an African-American man asked him for help, Michael gave him his food. After they talked for a moment, Michael offered him a hug. The man then began to cry. It had been so long since someone – even a stranger from across the world – had safely, gently, lovingly embraced him and touched his body as a fellow human being. A stranger’s hug made a grown man cry in public.
Somehow in these vulnerable moments, the awkward embarrassment of intimacy melts away. Touch let’s us know that we are together rather than alone, that we live in a world of connection rather than competition, that our lives are embraced and meant to be shared rather abandoned and destined for conflict. Our isolation is physically disarmed by loving arms.
Touch as Prayer
What if each nonviolent touch in our lives could be a form of prayer, a touch-point with God and others? Henry Nouwen, the Harvard professor and spiritual guide, wrote,
To pray is to listen to the One who calls you “my beloved daughter,” “my beloved son,” “my beloved child.” To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of your being, to your guts, and let that voice resound in your whole being… “I hold you safe in my embrace. I touch you. I hold you safe under my wings. You can come home to me whose name is Compassionate, whose name is Love.”
Nouwen, “From Solitude to Community to Ministry”
Imagine if the sensation of our bodies could serve as a sacred reminder that our Creator loves and embraces us in all of our strength and weakness, from before our birth to after our death.
Touch is so easily taken for granted. Quite literally, we feel everything. But perhaps more truthfully, we often feel nothing. We become desensitized with “numb touch” like “white noise.”
But it is possible for the sensation of our bodies to awaken and remind us that we are made for relationship, that we are not alone, and most mysteriously that the Creator of our bodies embraces us as beloved. Touch can be micro-prayer – anywhere, at any time, with anyone – a simple form of saying Yes to the Giver of our bodies and our capacity to touch, feel, and connect with others in the temple of God’s world as an expression of thanksgiving (eucharist).
More broadly, imagine if the breeze on your face could also serve as a gentle touch of God and a whisper toward relationship with others. Or the cool feel of a car door, shopping cart, or keyboard. Or a handshake and quick embrace when meeting a friend or stranger. In Waiting for God, Simone Weil wrote, “In other words, we must feel the reality and presence of God through all external things, without exception, as clearly as our hand feels the substance of paper.”
We are and live with people created by God for touch, for contact, for embodied presence with others. With practice, touch can become a form of prayer and sacred communion with God and others in everyday life. It becomes a nonverbal way of saying, “Welcome, your coming is good.” It reminds us that we are alive, that we live in God’s temple, that we are not alone, and that we are called by love to love with hope.
Touching Intimacy and Boundary
Even so, notice how touch has the same interface of intimacy and boundary woven into it that seeing also has. With sight, I can both see you and see that I cannot ever fully see into you. There is far more behind your eyes than mine can behold. Likewise, with touch, I can feel you, but I cannot feel you being felt by me. I cannot feel you receiving my touch, and thus there is a barrier built into our connection.
I’ve often noticed this in my marriage with Lily. Maybe I’m gently touching her back, and it feels good to me, so I assume that it feels soothing to her. But it doesn’t, and she asks me to change my touch or stop altogether.
There is more to her than I can feel, and touch is a paradoxical reminder of her otherness and moreness. Like vision needs to “re-see,” my touch needs to be a listening touch, a respectful touch, a gentle and tender touch that learns how and when not to touch.
I’ll never forget sitting in the northern mountains of Ethiopia with a cohort of my Wheaton College students as we pilgrimaged in Lalibela’s remarkable rock-hewn churches. Our dinner conversation had become heated about a sensitive topic, so I extended my hand across the table to one of my students as a gesture of goodwill and togetherness. But my student responded by leaving the table in tears.
I found out later that my offer of touch reminded her of a sexual assault she suffered in the past. In that moment, even the gentlest touch surrounded by friends was triggering and unhelpful for her. Sadly, I lacked the discernment to recognize this before extending my hand.
I often reflect on this dinner and its important lessons for our embodied life. It serves as a reminder to me that touch is simultaneously a form of connection and a warning not to trespass. I can only feel myself touching the other person; I cannot feel them being felt and what it means to them. And thus I need to touch gently, discerningly, always listening for the direction of the other. In some cases, not touching is the most touching way of being together.
Rehabbing the Sacred Sense of Touch
Touch connects us in deeply meaningful ways as tactile beings created for tangible belonging with others. Touch can serve as a subtle form of prayer in everyday life, reminding us to receive and share the love of God in the temple of God’s world everywhere, at all times, with all people. And touch is also an intimate reminder of our otherness and the crucial importance of listening to one another rather than imposing ourselves with force. Our bodies are meant to be prayerful and dialogical. One of the profoundest mysteries of the Christian faith is Jesus’s teaching that when we touch bodies in pain with love, we touch his own body and he touches us (Matthew 25:31-46).
In his article, Nouwen continues,
If you keep that in mind, you can deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure without losing your identity, because your identity is that you are the beloved. Long before your father and mother, your brothers and sisters, your teachers, your church, or any people touched you in a loving as well as in a wounding way—long before you were rejected by some person or praised by somebody else—that voice has been there always. “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” That love is there before you were born and will be there after you die.
Nouwen, “From Solitude to Community to Ministry”
Imagine if your everyday experience and practice of touch could become a reminder of this divine promise and gift. Bodily life itself could grow into a form of prayer, an embodied rhythm of welcoming, sharing, and celebrating the presence of God with others. In this way, our spirituality loses its gaps and shifts from a part-time identity to an embodied way of life in the world.
I conclude again with Jean Vanier’s vision of practicing God’s presence in daily life, now with the rehab of touch in mind:
It is essential for all of us to find the nourishment we need in daily life itself… Daily life is only nourishing when we have discovered the wisdom of the present moment and the presence of God in small things. It is only nourishing when we have given up fighting reality and accept it, discovering the message and gift of the moment… Each of these can be an occasion for wonder and awe, a moment of the presence of God.
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth