“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” -- Henri Nouwen
As caregivers, most of us hardly think before we place a comforting hand on someone’s arm, rub calming circles on their upper back, or hold their hands in ours as we speak to them. These simple acts of touch, even if they sometimes have to be done through rubber gloves and protective gowns, mean more to those we care for than we may realize. During my chaplain residency, I visited often with a teenage boy who had broken his neck in an accident and spent a long time in the Neuro ICU. He always wanted me to pray with him, and, although paralyzed from the neck down, he always insisted that I hold his hand during the prayer. What is it, I wondered, about touch that is so powerful it transcends physical sensation?
Touch seems to communicate on a level where words often fail. In a crisis, we are barely able to think, but when words cannot reach us, the presence and touch of an empathetic other can still make a difference. I see it often here in the hospital, when a nurse gently squeezes a patient’s hand after taking a blood pressure reading, or a guest services representative pats a family member’s arm as she brings him a blanket, or a doctor hugs the spouse of a patient she has been seeing through a long illness.
Religious rituals often incorporate physical touch. One of these is the beginning of the Christian holy season of Lent, Ash Wednesday. On that day in churches all over the world, priests and ministers of many different denominations will touch the foreheads of their parishioners with ashes, marking them with the sign of the cross. The words he or she says are usually, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But through his or her touch, much more is said. “I am with you. We are all in this together. Every one of us is in need of forgiveness. Every one of us is a fragile creature, prone to fail and one day die. But we have a God who reaches out to us, who does not turn away from our flawed and fragile state. As surely as I touch you, God wants to touch you with the forgiveness and love you need.”
God, we long for your touch on our lives. Though we cannot physically feel your hand upon us, help us to feel it through the touch of others and through the blessings you place in our lives every day. Remind us again of the reality of our deep need for you and your deep willingness to reach out to us. Thank you for your touch that makes us whole. Amen.
-- Chaplain Stacy N. Sergent