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March 07, 2012
Touch: Human and Divine
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Touching is a basic human need, a craving for human contact be it a hug, a warm hand on an arm, or a gentle pat on the back. But touching has taken a hard hit. Most of us are conditioned to link it first and foremost to sexual abuse of children, and victims of this heinous crime must be helped to regain their sense dignity and self worth. Still, it must be said that the corporeal sense of touch is a gift from God to be used in a proper and ordered way.

Skin-hunger occurs among infants, young children, the elderly and infirm. It deprives them of direct bodily contact with another, a fact that brought home in the movie “Ordinary People.” In her Oscar-nominating performance, Mary Tyler Moore portrays a mother who expresses nothing but external and internal coldness toward her husband and son.

Several years ago, a bizarre and chilling example of skin hunger was reported on the TV documentary magazine, “60 Minutes” which featured life in the Romanian adoption system. There, children up to six and seven years of age in psychological pain were crammed and locked in cribs like animals. They had been long deprived of loving hugs, warm hand rubs, and gentle pats on the back by care-givers.

Perhaps the orphanage enforced strict rules about avoiding direct contact with the children. Nonetheless, these infants and young children were denied a basic human need. To this day, those horrific images of children huddled together in cribs remain imbedded in my mind. Where are those children today? How have they managed to develop as well-adjusted human beings. Or, have these children even survived?

The Magic and Mystery of Touch

Bodily touch has a beauty all its own. Touch can say far more than words or eyes. Different from all other senses, touch is not localized in any one organ but covers the entire body. Sensations of touch are richer and more complex than their vague name would at first suggest.

Direct touching is a presence. A child, being cuddled in the loving arms of a mother and father knows instinctively that (1) it is loved and cherished; (2) the touch of mother and father embraces what is beautiful, true, and good. There is no closer physical contact than sexual intimacy to express one’s love for the other. But a man and woman locked in such an embrace can be strangers, miles apart psychologically and spiritually, if sexual intimacy is mere entertainment. The game of hook-up denigrates the human person and inflicts pain more lonely than physical pain.

A toothache and other aches touch and affect the entire body. An unkind comment made in passing can touch a raw nerve like the sting of a bee. Some people have the magic touch for communication. Others have that touch of class, also known as impeccable taste in all they do and say. Then there are people known to be touchy—meaning that one’s temperament is overly sensitive. With the sheer touch of a finger, a person can be opened to a world of images on a small hand-held screen.

The Hand

One’s handwriting reveals many characteristics about a person’s character. The hand is best suited to convey the sense of touch whether it is the touch of a musician, painter, or sculptor, a surgeon, a construction worker, a masseur, or a seamstress. One’s handshake can convey a friendly gesture. A handshake over lunch can seal a business deal. Holding hands is an every-day image. We all know the healing power of petting a dog, especially for needy people.

Touch in Scripture

In Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the artist depicts God extending his right finger to Adam’s to impart life. Although God’s finger does not actually touch Adam’s, the tip of his finger is already showing signs of life in an otherwise limp grey-like hand. The finger of the paternal right hand of God comes from the medieval hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus. The hand of God is said to direct the universe, for God’s personal touch shapes all things.

In an act of faith, Moses stretched out his hand, and the Lord God set back the waters (Ex 14:17). In his Incarnation, Jesus, a carpenter by trade, also used his hands as healing instruments (Mt 8:3; 15; 21; 9:21; 20:34). A sinner kissed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair; a woman touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, and she was healed. Jesus held children in his arms. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, and the risen Lord bade Thomas to touch the wounds of the Master.

In the reception of Holy Communion, Catholics taste and touch the Body and Blood of Christ. They sign themselves with the sign of the cross during the liturgy, and offer one another a gesture of peace with the hand. In his last moments on the cross, Jesus utters the Psalmist’s prayer to his Father, “Into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

Touched By God

If we admit the sense of touch in the corporeal order, then we should have no difficulty in admitting the reality of spiritual touch. What can we make of a person who is convinced that God has touched his or her soul? Is this a vision in which God has physically embraced the soul? When a soul is attuned to God, he or she acts on the touch or the prompting of grace at work within it.

 For the most part, the life of faith matures from the daily response to those inner promptings that nudge the soul to virtue or restrain it from doing wrong. These promptings of grace are moral touches, which, if acted upon, will make the soul more like Christ. They are small but not insignificant, and the infirm or home-bound, attuned to them, can serve well the whole Body of Christ according to their own circumstances.

Touched to Conversion

Lives can be changed through a single, powerful, and unforgettable prompting of grace that touches the soul in the way a homilist touches his audience. Some converts have described their attraction to the faith through the lives of the saints or to the beauty of the Church’s liturgy and sacred arts. The French writer Paul Claudel was moved to conversion when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris:

It was then that the event happened that has dominated all my life. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books, all the arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor to tell the truth have they even touched it (“Ma conversion” in Contacts et circonstances, Gallimard, 1940, p. 11).

The great European cathedrals are Bibles in stone and glass, and compositions like the Bach St. Matthew Passion are monumental expressions of faith that awaken the soul to God. Such beauty can light up the intellect and persuade the will to the assent to faith. Sacred beauty touches the whole person.

Infused Contemplation

Infused contemplation extends to that area of prayer in which mystics are touched by God, but not metaphorically and not literally. Here we can only speak in analogy. It is as though a woman is seated beside her fiancé or her husband in complete darkness and silence. She does not see him, therefore, she does not hear him; she only feels that he is there by the sense of touch, because she holds his hand in her own. And so she continues to think of him and to love him (Adapted from A. Poulain, S.J., The Graces of Interior Prayer, 90).

In The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love, and other writings, St. John of the Cross is fond of using the phrase, “touch/touches of love” especially when he sings of God’s beauty and the beauty of the soul who responds to it. The season of Lent is the season par excellence for “Love divine, all loves excelling.”

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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