The Way of BeautyThe Beauty of Catholic Education VI: The Delicate Sense of Touch

In his earthly ministry, Jesus healed those in need by touching them.  Today, educators are wary of broaching the topic of touch because of the highly charged and negative press focused on the Church.  In many cases, they are forbidden to touch their students. Nonetheless, this must not dissuade them from a positive treatment of it either directly through the scriptures and indirectly otherwise.  If we don’t speak about touch in the context of our faith, who will?  In approaching the topic with our students, the educators must tread with care and sensitivity.  This is especially true with older students.

Touching:  A Basic Human Need

Desire for human contact whether it is a hug, a comforting hand on an arm, or a gentle pat on the back is a basic human need.  But touching has been largely exploited by social media.  Most of us are conditioned to link it first and foremost to sexual abuse of children.  Victims of this heinous crime must be helped to regain their sense dignity and self-worth.  Still, this does not mean that Catholic educators must avoid the topic altogether. The sense of touch is a gift from God to be used in a proper and ordered way. 

Skin-Hunger

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

Several years ago, a bizarre and chilling example of skin-hunger was reported on “60 Minutes” which featured life in the Romanian adoption system.  There, children up to six and seven years of age were crammed in cribs and locked in like animals. They had been long deprived of loving hugs, warm hand rubs, and gentle pats on the back by care-givers.  Their parents were nowhere to be found. 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 images of children, huddled together in cribs, remain imbedded in my mind.  It is impossible to recall those images without cringing with horror. 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 because it is immediate and direct. 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 ‘hook-up’ culture denigrates the human person and inflicts pain that sears through to the core of the psyche.

Touch As Metaphor

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 that 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. Over lunch, it can seal a business deal.  Holding hands is an every-day image. We all know the healing power of petting a dog and of care-giving dogs.  Miracles in the making!

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 is about to 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, used his hands to make things and 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).

More in The Way of Beauty

Touched By God 

If we admit the sense of touch in the physical 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 person is attuned to God, he or she acts on the touch or the prompting of grace at work within it. 

Children must be taught early that as their life of faith matures, God’s Spirit inspires them to virtue.  It is the evil spirit that lures them into doing wrong and to sin against the gift of touch.  

The educator is charged with many responsibilities, and among the greatest is respect for the gift of touch.

Finally . . . 

Faith is a fully human and dynamic act engaging the whole person.  To ignore or denigrate the senses is to fall into errors that resemble Gnosticism.  This esoteric heresy spiritualizes the body, intellectualizes holiness, and denigrates matter.  Having originated in the pagan world, Gnosticism insists that the human body is evil and the material world is irredeemable.  Salvation comes only through knowledge (gnosis), and it is Jesus who brought this gnosis into the world. Accordingly, only the purely spiritual person will be saved. In the second century, St Irenaeus of Lyons refuted Gnosticism by proclaiming the goodness of creation and what is material.  The underlying tenets of Gnosticism exist today in the guise of some New Age movements. Gnosticism dilutes the meaning of the Incarnation. Jesus in his human person affirmed that the physical and spiritual faculties act in harmony with each other.  Catholic educators must teach this harmony, however difficult it is.  With the example of Jesus himself, it will not prove impossible to overcome a culture that defines the senses downward, especially the sense of touch.

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