Do not fear human touch

  • June 30, 2010
One of the few times I’ve been seriously ill occurred in Europe. Being away from home, it took a while to find appropriate medical help and by the time I did the pain was out of control. My mind was starting to wander down strange corridors. As I lay, finally, in hospital awaiting doctors, my brother sat beside me, touched my hand and talked to me of this and that. The sound of his voice, the touch of his hand, the physical presence of another, held and anchored me and kept me from slipping away into that alternate universe.

Human touch can actually change pain and suffering, being a powerful agent of healing. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, once responded to a question about how to help those whose suffering is unspoken, or unspeakable. He replied: Touch . . . human touch can unlock chambers of the heart which might otherwise become a lifelong prison.

But can we touch one another?

Isn’t it dangerous to touch even those we love and know, let alone the stranger? Human touch can also be a powerful agent of hurt and harm. In our culture, we tend to be wary of touching or being touched. Loss of touch may be one of the greatest forms of suffering among us.

Often we fear the sufferer, especially, fear to be connected with that person and prefer to keep a reasonable distance (as with the two travellers who preceded the Good Samaritan, taking care to pass on the other side of the road). He may be contagious. He may lead us into suffering, his or ours. He may misinterpret our outreach and react negatively. If we do risk to touch someone, shouldn’t we be armed, at least with a supply of hand sanitizer?

This fear of one another shows up in our churches, sometimes most poignantly at the sign of peace — the liturgical invitation to touch another, to be human with my fellow humans, to know that I am not alone with Christ but come before Him in communion with these flesh-and-blood creatures, weak, sinful, vulnerable as I am. To be at odds with them is to be at odds with Christ; to be at peace with them is to be at peace with Christ.

The kiss of peace before communion has been part of the eucharistic liturgy since as far back as we know. What price do we pay by omitting it in the name of medical health, or reducing it to a distant nod from the safety of the adjacent pew?

Not that our fellow humans aren’t dangerous, intentionally or unintentionally. We’re asked to offer the sign of peace, not because we’re safe for each other, but because we don’t appear to be. How can we touch one another, knowing the harm we are surely invoking? How can we not touch one another, knowing the harm we are surely invoking?

As recounted in the Gospels, Jesus frequently healed by way of touch — touching lepers, whose disease was thought to be highly contagious (cf Matthew 8:3); touching the blind (Mark 8:25), the notoriously sinful (Luke 7:37) and even the dead (Luke 7:14). As in our day, these ills caused suffering not only in themselves, but also because they resulted in isolation and alienation from the community.

Not just the feared person suffers through this isolation; the fearer suffers too, perhaps more, perhaps without knowing.  Healing, as Jesus healed, meant restoration to and reconciliation with the community.

Early church hymns marvel at the wonder of God held in human hands — the divine-human child Jesus held by His human mother. The Church recalls us to Jesus’ human vulnerability in celebrating the feast day of Jesus’ grandparents, Joachim and Anne, July 26. He came into the world within a family, real humans with real human weaknesses, emotions, needs, family dynamics. Christ was completely vulnerable as is any baby, especially a baby in poverty. His vulnerability was held safely by His mother, but cruelly by other humans later in His life. The hands which had touched to heal were pierced, wounded and pinned by humans. Those wounds, according to Christian tradition, don’t disappear when Jesus is raised from the dead in the flesh. The wounds still marking the hands, the side, show that the flesh is also raised, and that the wounds remain but are transformed.

In a painting of the risen Christ sitting among children, a small girl points and solemnly asks of Jesus: “What happened to your hand?” His hand touched us, and was touched by us, in pain and in healing. Her question goes directly to the heart of the matter; behind it is the whole story of salvation.

Refusing the vulnerability of being human, and being dependent on humans, is tempting. The One who was actually able to refuse it accepted it instead, showing us the way of life.