Touch: A Sacrament of God’s Presence

On any number of occasions, people have asked me if I’ve read Macrina Wiederkehr and, although I have heard people share selections from one or another of her works on occasion, I had never picked up one of her books. Recently, I noticed a copy of Wiederkehr’s Behold Your Life on my friend Angela’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. After it sat on the floor in my study for several weeks (I have an elastic definition of “recently”), I finally picked it up and started skimming through it. The book is a 40-day “pilgrimage through your memories.”

One of the entries that struck me as I was flipping through the book is one based on the passage in Luke Chapter 7, when the woman identified as a “sinful woman” bathed Jesus’ feet, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and then anointed them with ointment. The suggested prayer experience accompanying the passage is to:

Try to envision the people who might have held you when you were a baby. Touch is essential for wholesome living and growth. When touch is healthy it is a sacrament of God’s presence. Let this be a day to focus on the gift of human touch. Be conscious of all that you touch today whether it be people or things. Practice awareness. Hold all things as though they were sacred vessels.

This seems to me a marvelous suggestion, although I wouldn’t limit the exercise to people who touched me when I was a baby. Perhaps I react so strongly to this invitation to contemplation because the sense of touch is one that is so important to me. I joke that it is part of my Italian heritage: always hugging people, holding hands, touching people on the arm or shoulder when talking to them. Sometimes the touch says I love you or it makes me happy to be with you. Sometimes it says I don’t have words but I need to convey that I’m here. Sometimes it just says I’m delighted and want to share my joy with you.

But even more importantly, some of my most powerful experiences of God’s love involve other people touching me when I was in pain. My cousin putting his arm around me at the end of my father’s funeral mass saying, “I’m here…You’re not alone,” just at the moment with I thought I might collapse with grief. It was my cousin, but I was fully aware that it was God. A Jesuit at the retreat house I used to be on the adjunct staff of holding out his arms and enfolding me in a hug whenever he saw me during the final month of my father’s illness. Every time he did, I felt wrapped in the arms of God. One of my close friends taking my hand and putting it through his arm as we walked along the path after I returned from a very difficult session with a spiritual director in which I talked for the first time about a very painful experience from my past. He hadn’t known what I had just gone through, and when I asked him about it later, he said it just seemed like the right thing to do.  It was God saying, you’re with me and I’m not going anywhere.

To be sure, there are experiences of touch that are anything but sacramental and we need to deal with the wounds those touches create. But the suggestion to spend time now and again contemplating those loving, healing touches that have been sacraments of God’s presence is a good one.