Reach Out and Touch Someone

Reach out and touch someone.

No, not by calling them or texting them or sending them an e-mail. I mean reach out and physically touch someone.

If you have read my posts the last two days, you know I am at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh giving a weekend retreat for Marquette University faculty and staff. We ended our retreat session last night with a simple water blessing. After leading the participants in a guided meditation, I invited them to come up two-by-two and bless each other with water (really, be a conduit of God’s blessing) from the bowl I had placed on a table in front of the room. (I told them they could bless each other in any way they wished – other than dumping the whole bowl of water on the other person.)

It was a very sacred experience. Sitting in the back watching the retreatants come two-by-two and prayerfully bless each other almost brought me to tears. Some made crosses on each others foreheads and hands. Some held their hands together in the water. Many hugged.

Later, one of the retreatants came to me to tell me how powerful he found the experience. And then he remarked, “People don’t touch each other enough.”

I woke up with that line on my mind. I’m of Italian descent, so we touch everyone. We kiss and hug everyone hello and good-bye. But that is clearly not the case with everyone. And yet we benefit so much from the touch of another. There is actually quite a bit of scientific research documenting the emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch.

I recognize that some people have particular wounds that may make touching difficult for them, and I don’t want to minimize that. But for the rest of us: Reach out and touch someone!


Bringing the Spiritually Paralyzed to Christ

I arrived today at the Benedictine Center at St. Paul Monastery (where I am co-facilitating our semi-annual vocation retreat weekend for law students and alum) in time for the 5:00 daily Mass.

Today’s Gospel was St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man. Jesus is speaking in a crowded room, so crowded it is impossible for the four men carrying their paralyzed friend to get in the door. So determined were they to get their friend to Jesus that they broke through the roof and lowered the mat carrying their friend to Jesus.

It was that act that the priest celebrating Mass focused on in his sermon – the caring determination of the friends of the paralytic.

We can’t heal people directly, but we can participate in their healing by praying for them. But the priest also invited us to think about how else we can help bring those in need to Jesus. How, he asked, might we bring the spiritually paralyzed to Him. He acknowledged that it can be challenging to know what to say to people who are feeling distant from God, and that saying the wrong thing is potentially worse than saying nothing.

Do we have eyes that see those who are paralyzed? And are we open to those opportunities where we might help bring them to Jesus?

Please keep our retreatants in prayer this weekend.

Heal Us, God

Through the kind invitation of my friend, Rabbi Norman Cohen, last night I attended the evening Yom Kippur service at Bet Shalom Temple. I found the experience to be deeply moving.

Yom Kippur, as many people know is the Jewish day of atonement. “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God” (Leviticus 16:30). As the quote suggests, the atonement is for sins against God, not sins against another person. Atonement for sins against another person, requires that one seek reconciliation with that person, and, if possible, the righting the wrongs committed against that person. (That atonement should be done before Yom Kippur).

Last night’s service included beautiful prayers of blessing and prayers for forgiveness, spoken prayers and sung prayers, prayers in Hebrew and prayers in English. There were many parts of the service that touched me deeply. One that stood out was a sung prayer for healing. As the cantor repeated, “Heal us, God,” I found my eyes filling with tears.

At one level, the prayer asks forgiveness for our own sins. But as the words were sung, in my mind I saw pictures of ISIS executions of Christians, the war between Israel and Palestine, the Chinese government’s reaction to the protests in Hong Kong, crimes of violence in the United States and so many more. A kaleidoscope of pictures one after the other of the sins of the world – of the sins of God’s people.

Heal us, God, I prayed in the depth of my soul, as I listened to the singing of the cantor. Heal us, God: Not just those of us sitting here. Not just those of us who pray for your healing. Not just those we feel kindly toward. But heal us, heal all of us who are in need of your grace (that is, every one of us alive today), heal those who recognize that need and those who don’t.

Heal us, O God.

Note: My friend Larry Mitchell writes beautifully about Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrie (the opening prayer for the Yom Kippur evening service) here and here.

He Laid Hands on Each of Them

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, after Jesus cures Simon’s mother-in-law, “all who had people sick with various disease brought them to him.” Luke then tells us that Jesus “laid his hands on each of them and cured them.”

Jesus didn’t stand in front of the room and announce, “Everyone here present is now healed.” He touched each of them individually and, in that personal encounter, they were healed.

We see this same thing over and over again. Jesus caused a blind man to see, he didn’t cure blindness, which would have had a larger impact measured by numbers. He caused a deaf man to hear, he didn’t cure deafness, which likewise would seem to be the bigger impact. And so on and so forth.

I was reminded as I sat with this passage of an excerpt from Barbara Brown Taylor’s, An Altar in the World, that I coincidentally just received via e-mail:

Jesus walked a lot, and not only during the last week of his life. The four gospels are peppered with accounts of him walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Temple, and
even walking on water…. This gave him time to see things. If he had been moving more quickly – ­even to reach more people – these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them. Sometimes he had a destination, sometimes he did not. For many who followed him around, he was the destination…. While many of his present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it.

I think both the Gospel and Brown’s statement are an important reminder to us. I think it is easy for us to get so caught up in the desire to do something big that we can miss the opportunities to touch and heal individuals. Jesus noticed people and saw what they needed. And he touched them – one at a time. If we can do the same, that is enough.

And He Followed Him

Today’s Gospel gives us St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ healing of a blind man.

A blind beggar, hearing the commotion of the crowds, learns that Jesus is passing by and shouts out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” Ignoring the rebukes of the people around him, he keeps calling out until Jesus hears him. When Jesus does, he asks the man (as he so often asks those whom he encounters) what he wants. “Lord, please let me see” is his reply. Jesus’ response is “Have sight; your faith has saved you.” And we are told by St. Luke that the man immediately received his sight “and followed him.”

The man was healed and began to follow Jesus.

We don’t catch the full significance of the action of the beggar unless we realize that this encounter recorded by Luke occurs after Jesus’ third prediction of the passion and as Jesus is already on the road toward Jerusalem – where he will be arrested, tortured and executed. The beggar is healed by Jesus, and that healing allows him to follow Jesus to the cross.

That is what is asked of us. Not to just follow Jesus while he is healing the sick, walking on water, feeding the multitudes and attending dinner parties and wedding feasts with his friends. We are asked to do exactly what the (formerly) blind man did – follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to the cross.

And it it precisely Jesus’ healing love and grace that allows us to do that.

What Do You Desire?

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, we hear of Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus. Hearing Bartimaeus calling to him from the roadside, Jesus asks his followers to bring Bartimaeus to him. When they do, the first thing Jesus says to him is “What do you want me to do for you?”

What do you want? This is the first thing Jesus so often asked people when he met them. And He asks the same question of us. What do you want? What do you desire from me?

We are often uncomfortable talking about desires. We’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of our desires, to think that living a faithful Christian life means overcoming desires.

But to live vital and passionate lives requires that we pay serious attention to our desires when we discern how we are intended to live and love in this world. Our desires reflect the longings of our heart and point to an incompleteness in us that longs for fulfillment.

If, as Saint Iranaeus said, the glory of God is the human person fully alive, then desires are an incredibly important part of our discernment; getting in touch with our desires helps us discover what is lifegiving to us. Failing to take our desires seriously ignores (in the words of E. Edward Kinerk) “the greatest source of human vitality and passion which God has given us.”

Anthony deMello highlights this in a story he once told: The disciple, a Jewish man, asked, “What good work should I do to be acceptable to God?” The Master answered, “How should I know? Your Bible says that Abraham practiced hospitality and God was with him. Elias loved to pray and God was with him. David ruled a kingdom and God was with him too.” The man persisted, “Is there some way I can find my own allotted work?” The Master responded, “Yes. Search for the deepest inclination or your heart and follow it.”

What do you desire? What is the deepest inclination of your heart?

A Healing Encounter

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, the people bring to Jesus a deaf man, begging him to “lay his hand on him.”

Being deaf in Jesus’ time was not just about not being able to hear or speak clearly. Physical impairment was often viewed as the consequence of sin, with the result that people suffering from deafness, blindness, etc., had little status and were barred from many things. So in asking Jesus to lay his hands on the man, they seek what will not only physically heal him, but will restores him to community.

There is a beautiful intimacy to the encounter between the deaf man and Jesus. We are told by Mark that Jesus “took him aside in private, away from the crowd.” He then put his fingers into the man’s ears, spat and touched his tongue. “Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.'”

As I see the scene in my mind, I see the man (with no one else to distract him) focused totally on Jesus – his actions, his words, his physical closeness. And I see Jesus, the incarnation of God, physically manifesting God’s love to the man through his intimate touch, and his words.

The man can now hear and speak and is thus restored to community. Jesus heals his physical body and loss of community.

But the man can also now hear and proclaim the Gospel. To us, who sometimes have blocked our ears to the Gospel or refused to speak the Good News to others, Jesus also says “Ephphatha!”

Healing Touch

I don’t know about other retreat houses, but Jesuit retreat houses often offer the opportunity for massage during a retreat. Many women religious as well as lay women involved in ministry are massage therapists and one can sign up for a massage during the retreat.

I had my first massage on a retreat about six years ago and I’ve had one on several retreats after that, including this one. And I’ve recently started to get a monthly massage at a place near where I live.

I had to get over an initial reluctance to spend money treating myself to a massage – it struck me as self-indulgent and I had a guilt about spending money that could be used for better (more charitable) purposes. But I’ve come to realize that my ability to serve God requires that I take some care of my body and massage makes an enormous difference in the lower back and shoulder pain I often suffer from.

Massage during retreat is a very different experience from my monthly massages. When I go to Drew at LaVida Massage, I really need him to work out the knots from sitting for long periods in front of the computer and work hard on the areas that contribute to the lower back pain.

Massage on retreat is about being anointed and blessed with Christ’s hands and Christ’s touch. It is an experience of the sacredness of the body. It is about feeling God’s healing presence. It is a union of the body, the mind and the spirit.

My hope when I leave here is that I can bring back some of the sacredness of retreat house massage to the massages I get at LaVida. To feel them not only as a form of physical therapy, but as the same gift of God’s healing touch.

Details in Mark

Yesterday’s Gospel was St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of the leper, a passage I mentioned in my post on Friday in connection with a Huff Post piece.

One of my really great Christmas gifts from my husband was Feasting on the Word, which contains essays on the Sunday Mass readings – four for each of the biblical texts for each week (First Reading, Psalm, Second reading and Gospel). For each of the four texts, there are four essays: one offering a theological perspective, one a pastoral perspective, one an exegetial perspective and one a homiletical perspective.

Although I can’t say it do it every Sunday, I do like to take some time on Sunday to read the essays for that day (if not all of them, at least the Gospel ones).

What I read this week made me think about the fact that there are details we (or at least me, and I’m guessing one or two others), don’t always notice. The detail in this case is this:

The story of the healing of the leper is the third of three healings recounted in the 45 verses of the first chapter of Mark. (I say third recounted, since there is also a reference in that chapter to other healings.) What the homiletical essay observed is something I have never focused on: the difference in locations of the healings. The first takes place in the synagogue (the man with the evil spirit), the second in a home (Simon’s mother-in-law) an the third in an open field.

The essay written from a theological perspective observed that “Mark has steadily moved us from the religious space through the house/private space to the public space, strongly illustrating the overwhelming power of God’s kingdom in all human spaces.”

As interesting as I find the particular observation, my dominant thought was: gosh, how many other details have I overlooked in reading the Gospels? Mark was clearly very intentional in his recounting of these healings; he had a point to make. One I had not gotten until now.

For me this experience was an invitation to reflect on the Gospels with more care to see what else I might find.

What is My Impediment Today

Yesterday morning, I attended Mass at Christ the King. The Gospel was St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of a “deaf man who had a speech impediment.” In order to heal the man, Jesus “put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue.”

An impediment is a hindrance or obstruction. Fr. Dale explained in his sermon that part of the ancient Baptism rite included the priest putting his fingers in the ears of the person being baptized and placing salt on the person’s tongue to remove any impediments to the person hearing God’s voice and speaking words of praise to God.

What is my impediment?, he then encouraged us to consider. Every day we face impediments to hearing God’s voice and speaking God’s praises. What is the impediment I need healed today?

I was really struck by the what he said. When we think of our need for healing, I think we tend to think of the big things – our core issues that impede our discipleship. Those core issues vary, but we all have them. And certainly we desperately need hearing of those big impediments.

But I think Fr. Dale is absolutely right that there are all sorts of smaller things that impede us on a day-to-day basis. And there is value in being intentional about acknowledging what (or who) is it right now that is impeding my ability to hear God and seeking healing of that impediment. Jesus so often asked people, “what do you want..what do you need from me.” Fr. Dale’s sermon invites us to both reflect on our need for healing and ask God to heal those impediments.