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!


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.