The Human Longing for Touch
I have always been impressed by an image of Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam. It’s a depiction from the Old Testament book of Genesis in which God, the Father is reaching out to Adam. Their fingers reach out each other and in that moment the Father gives life to Adam. A snapshot in time of the sublime moment of touch that created the spark of life from which the human race began. As humans we are tactile people and touch is part and parcel of who we are and what we do.
Two expressive monuments in the town of Ennis further speak to this.
One is in the Market Square where two farmers are clinching a deal for the sale of a cow. The happy moment of the deal being done, in which they spit on their hands and shake on it. Job done! The human touch. Communication through contact.
The other remarkable landmark is the iconic hands outside Ennis Cathedral. The open hands that welcome, that embrace that draws us into the loving embrace of the God who created us. The human touch reaching out to the divine and vice versa.
Touch is so important to us in so many ways. Being renowned for the one hundred thousand welcomes our warm and friendly handshake is legendary. The shaking hands or hug or embrace of the hundreds that gather at funerals is also so Irish. The entertainment of the ‘physicality’ of the many contact sports that we view so regularly. The frenzied crowding of the pitch to celebrate a famous win and get an opportunity to slap the back of our local heroes. The loving embrace of a mother or father to welcome and console a new born baby. The high five of a grandparent to a little child learning the ways of relating and communicating. Physical contact is at the heart of our relating and being.
Despite all of that since early March, with the current lockdown we have been catapulted into a new foreign reality that discourages physical contact and promotes social distancing. Even though we know and understand it is for our protection and safety, it’s still hard to accept and is so repugnant to our nature. Face-time, zoom and electronic communication are great, but only a poor substitute for real human encounter. After three months of that I look forward so much to being able to embrace my mother who is in a nursing home and brother of special needs who is in residential care. I look forward so much also to the return of congregations in our Churches.
Some people view matters of faith, religion and spirituality as dealing in abstract and not physical things. Heaven rather that earth. Matters of the spirit and less interest in bodily realities. Pie in the sky rather than jam where I am. In actual fact, this arises from a false dichotomy that has its origins in Greek philosophy and further back. This form of thinking is a dualism that classifies the spirit as good and the body as negative that drags the spirit down. Unfortunately, this has led to a sometimes puritanical view and suspicion of the physical and in particular in relation to human sexuality. Much of the thinking of our Christian philosophy and theology has been deeply influenced by this dualism and it has taken many centuries to emerge from the shackles of this viewpoint. Orthodox, balanced theology and a healthy spiritual outlook, however, recognises the importance and gift that corporeal things bring us. Body and spirit together as a unit. Healthy body, healthy mind, healthy spirit.
Our Faith is an Incarnational faith. The Word was made flesh. Jesus took on human nature and was like us in all things but sin. He was born in a stable and went through all the troubles and challenges we have to endure. Jesus continues to be real for us through the Eucharist. Our God is not distant, remote, aloof, but literally down and dirty, smelling of the sheep to use the phrase of Pope Francis. A God in solidarity, among us, with us. As in the creation image, our God continues to create, inspire, redeem, love and care for us every moment of our existence, even though this might be a challenge to see in moments of deep challenge. Therein lies the challenge of trust and faith.
In the song Brewing up a Storm, by The Stunning we listen to the words; Fire in your eyes / Fire in your head / Fire in your TOUCH. We long for the time when the current storm abates and in these post-Pentecost times the fire of that normal human touch can be restored to what it is meant to be.