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franciscan - January 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1995

The Theology of Touch

by Vivien Naylor

To write about the theology of touch is almost a contradiction in terms: it is so much about integration and relationship and being grounded in experience. But if I can share anything of the excitement and importance of this way of thinking and being, then that will be something. We would not have a theology of touch without a theology of the body and the glory and the scandal of our faith is its physicality: ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’

Incarnation and Eucharist need to be firmly tied into the concrete events and images of the baby in the manger and the body on the cross. The resurrection also has a physical dimension with those wonderful post-resurrection encounters: Mary wanting to hold Jesus; Thomas needing to see and touch Jesus’ wounds to enable his acclamation “My Lord and My God”; and the breaking of bread bringing recognition of Jesus.

The sharing of Jesus in our humanity, and our receiving and sharing the broken bread, bring us into bodily relationship and unity: we are one body in Christ.

Despite this foundation, there has, historically, often been a bias against the body, seeing it as impure and distracting from the spiritual, or giving prime importance to the thinking function. But our very identities are bound up with our bodies and with touch.
The foetus can touch within a month of conception. Babies touch and explore before ever they speak and the way we are touched and handled as babies affects our self-image for better or worse. Further, our identities are also bound up with God. St Augustine said in his Confessions: “You were there in front of me all the time but I had wandered far away from myself and if I could not find my own self, how much less could I find you.” To discover who I am and who God is is part of the same process, and who I am is bound up with my body.

The body is not often thought of as a source of enlightenment but it is precisely that. Therapists have shown how emotions, attitudes and memories are stored more deeply in our bodies than in our minds and, unlike the mind, the body cannot dissemble. Rabbi Lionel Blue recalls in his autobiographical Backdoor to Heaven how he discovered this through his own body therapy: “My mind could lie, but the tensions in my body did not lie. My soul could play tricks; the instinctive responses of my body did not. In the geography of my flesh was the plan of my past and the hope for my future.”

James Nelson (in Embodiment) maintains that there is a two-way question: we need to ask what our bodies and sexuality say about God, how they inform our faith, as much as what faith may tell us about our bodies. Our own experience is very precious and makes our faith and spirituality authentic, reality based and integrating.

All this is stating what holistic medicine and much ancient wisdom affirm, that we are integrated unities of body, mind and spirit. As Christians, we can thus also speak in terms of body as sacrament: the outward and physical sign of inward and spiritual truth and grace. Popular parlance talks of “body language” and God’s most powerful statements about himself are made in silence through the body of Jesus: the baby, the cross, the bread and wine. As a priestly people, we are called to be a sacramental presence in the world: God continues to incarnate himself in us and continues to dwell with his people.

It follows that, when we touch someone, it is not just a physical event of flesh meeting flesh but a language for our very beings, a sacrament. Two peoples’ histories and hopes meet. But how do they meet? How do we touch other peoples’ lives? In many sacramental acts in the liturgical life of the church, God touches our lives in power and intimacy: to baptise, to bless, to commission, to heal. Do we touch to mediate God in Christ?

Jesus came to be the servant of all and to give his life as a ransom for many. In St John’s Gospel, instead of the Last Supper, we see Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Do we wash one another’s feet? If we take someone else seriously, we are bound to take their physical nature and needs seriously.

As Eric James said in a talk, you cannot baptise a baby and send it back to a slum without doing something about housing. Touch, in an ordinary and practical action, can be the language of service and gift and of liberation and redemption.

Jesus said at the foot washing: “If I do not wash your feet, you are not in fellowship with me.” (John 13:8) This shows us two further lessons about touch. Firstly, that touch expresses and effects unity and communion. Skin is physically our container and boundary but through its abundant endowment with sensory nerve cells, it also dissolves boundaries. Touch is a reciprocal sense: we cannot touch without being touched. The marriage service (from Genesis 2:24) speaks of two becoming one flesh. When a nurse cares for a patient, however “difficult” or unattractive, a bond grows between them.

Secondly, touch is the language of humility. Peter had to learn to receive. Do we let God wash our feet? And in our reaching out to others, we show we are not self-sufficient. Do we dare to share our brokenness with each other as God shares his with us?
If touch is the means to and language for gift and communion, it is, of course, also the language for love and joy. Our encounters with those we love are full of joyful expression through touch. Further, to be embodied is to be sexual and it is one and the same energy that pervades our sexuality and our spirituality and both affect all we are and do. Jim Cotter, in Pleasure, Pain and Passion, parallels making love and making Eucharist, and also says: “A sacramental understanding of sexuality perceives it as more than incidental or physical. It recognises that the sexual participates in the spiritual, is an intrinsic element in any impulse of embodied human beings towards God . . . The prayer that we may dwell in Christ and Christ in us includes the dimension of the sexual.”

However, the question must arise as to how we learn to touch appropriately. Space invaders are hard to bear! I would suggest three related ways.

Firstly, there is an essential relationship between space and solitude, between touch and relationship. We move between the two poles of touching and not touching, holding and letting go, attachment and detachment. We do not possess, nor are we possessed by, God or any one else. We need to be comfortable with our own and each other’s space so we can enter another’s space with respect. Jim Cotter says: “Always one will affect the other - the art of touch is not unaffected by the art of solitude, nor the quality of solitude unaffected by the quality of touch” (ibid). Jesus went apart to pray and his ministry was full of touch.

Secondly, prayer is one form, and for the Christian an essential form, of solitude. There is a parallel between prayer and touch for both are a kind of listening, a being open to the other, an attempt of the ego towards humility. When we touch, we touch with ears in our hands. When we pray, not only do we become more in touch with our true self and with God but also with others. In prayer we grow in love but it is the paradoxical love of caring and not caring, so that we do not give or touch out of our own need.

Thirdly and lastly, the body in prayer and, more specifically, breathing, can teach us better how to touch. So often we live cut off from our true selves and feelings. We are distracted by so many external stimuli as well as our inner noise of hopes and fears and arguings, trying so hard to understand with our minds Life, God and the Universe. Relaxed breathing helps to bring us back into ourselves, out of our heads, so that we can be fully present, here and now, more fully alive and more aware. Anthony de Mello is very helpful in his book Sadhana on the use of the body and breathing in prayer and awareness and gives much practical guidance. He says: “When you pray with your body you give power and body to your prayer . . . God is the ground of my being . . . and I cannot go deep into myself without coming in touch with him. The awareness of self is also a means for developing awareness of the other.”

Thus breathing, embodiment, prayer, solitude and touch are interdependent and mutually enhancing. And so we come full circle: to find ourselves is to find God, to be fully embodied is to re-incarnate the Word for the world and touch the world with Christ’s body. f

Vivien Naylor read classics at Cambridge then became a hospice nurse and massage therapist.
She is now a priest and has just become Assistant Chaplain at the Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust.


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