Touch

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To be a human is to have a body, and to have a body is to touch and be touched.

The silky softness of a dog’s fur, the grainy roughness of sand, the bracing coolness of water. Touch is the triumph of a high five, the comfort a bear hug, the lurching nervous magic of a kiss. Touch is the shock of a slap to the face, the grief of a hand that slips out of our own, the betrayal of a smack that should be a carress. Touch is safety, danger, pleasure, pain, comfort, courage, human. We are touching creatures, feeling our way through the world. We reach for the world, for each other, for God.

To touch and be touched is to be human. 

In this week’s episode, we will examine how touch is central to the human experience. We’ll examine this idea through three works of art (one literary, one visual, and one musical), examining our deep desire to touch creation, each other, and God.

Listen at the link above, and follow along in the notes below.

  1. Literary — “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur"

For Hopkins, creation, the natural world is God’s generous gift to us, the place we see His glory, and are drawn into worship.

I love the way he describes the world as “charged” with the grandeur of God. It makes me think of when I’ve walked around a carpeted house in socks and then touched something metal— the electric charge shocks my finger and I am reminded of a power and a connectedness I had not noticed before. Creation is “charged” with God’s presence. Sometimes we will suddenly see its glory, flaming out in a moment of excess, gathering to a greatness of splendour. The words and images he uses to describe are all visceral, sensual words— ooze, shock, flame, crush. All textures to be felt, touched, experienced.

Creation is made for touching.

The silky softness of a dog’s fur, the grainy roughness of sand, the bracing coolness of water. We are creatures, and we belong in the home of our world, to delight in its textures and temperatures, to touch and be touched by it. The very first image we are given of man is as a gardener or, perhaps better put, as a husbandman. In the Genesis story after creating the world, God makes man, and sets him in the garden, and blesses them saying  “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). They are at home in the world, like the birds and the beasts that God has also blessed they to are to beget and to eat what God has give, but they are also responsible for the earth. Their identity is tied to their care of the earth. We often have the word “subdue” but it is perhaps better understood as to “husband” the land or to steward it.

My Bible commentary reads:

“Man Goes forth under this divine benediction— flourishing, filling the earth with his kind, exercising dominion over the other earthly creatures. Human culture, accordingly, is not anti-God…rather, it is the expression of man’s bearing the image of his Creator, and sharing as God’s servant, in God’s kingly rule. As God’s representative in the creaturely realm, he (man) is steward of God’s creatures. He is not to exploit, waste or despoil them, but to care for them and use them in the service of God and man” New American Standard Study Bible, ed. Kenneth Barker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

We are made to be in communion with nature, to perceive God’s generosity and glory in it, to treat it with care and respect. But this does not describe our relationship to nature. Where there is meant to be communion, there is disunion. Where there is meant to be gentle touch that nurtures and cultivates, there is burning and breaking, plunder.

Nor can foot feel being shod…

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All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell

For Hopkins, our disunion with nature is reflected in our despoliation of the natural world, particularly in the violence of the industrial revolution.

I love the way he describes this when he writes “nor can foot feel being shod.” If we are meant to touch the glory of God in creation, to feel the shock of its lavishness, our sin acts like a glove or a shoe, so that we can no longer feel the shock. We are alienated from nature, it cannot touch us, and we do not care. And this blindness leads us to abuse the creation we were meant to husband. As a result, the earth is bleared, smeared, seared. Touch that was soft like oil and majestic like electricity becomes dirty and damaging, obscuring the loveliness of nature. How vividly we see this in the world we live today, with smoggy skylines and oily oceans.

The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods….

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But God has not abandoned creation or us.

The image Hopkins gives us of God brooding over creation comes from Genesis 1:2 which reads “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (ESV). This little word often translated as hovering, moving, is a funny word which is really more of a picture. Look at the definition of the word below.

was hovering
מְרַחֶ֖פֶת (mə·ra·ḥe·p̄eṯ)
Verb - Piel - Participle - feminine singular
Strong's Hebrew 7363: To brood, to be relaxed


The picture we are given in Hebrew is of God as a mother bird brooding over a nest of eggs, gently bringing them to life. And this is what Hopkins brings us back to. That God still shows this care. That God still broods over the world. That God still broods over us. There is hope, Hopkins finds, as he watches the sunrise that God may bring us back into union with nature, that we may once again feel the shock of God’s presence in it…

That we may take off our shoes and feel the holy ground of the garden.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899) was a Jesuit poet and priest. To learn more about him, check out the books in the bibliography at the end of this post.

ppst…did you love the dramatic reading and musical composition?

You must check out my brother Joel’s Patreon. He posts original compositions, beautifully edited footage of Scotland, and dramatic readings (he’s an audiobook narrator). You won’t regret it.

2. Visual — “The Child’s Bath” (1893) by Mary Cassatt

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Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast.
— Psalm 22:9

Mary Cassatt painting the profound and prosaic moments of domestic life, particularly of mothers and children. Her work demonstrates how safe, loving touch brings our souls and bodies to life.

Mary Cassatt was a great painter, one of the pioneers of impressionism. In contrast to the “important” scenes and subjects many masters chose, she focused her work on the epic theatre of homely scenes— of tea time and bath time and reading the paper. Her paintings dignify the importance of motherhood and of the comfort of home in a patriarchal world that often scoffed at these “women’s concerns.”

Safe, loving touch is the magic that brings the brains of little babies to life.

As mama’s nurse and cuddle and swaddle, creating a rhythm of love, connection, and comfort, babies learn to see the world as a safe place, giving them the freedom to explore, learn, grow. In this article on Pyschology Today, Christopher Bergland writes that studies have found that “ loving touch, characterized by a slow caress or gentle stroking increases the brain's ability to construct a sense of body ownership and plays a big part in creating and sustaining a healthy sense of self.” On the contrary, when children do not have enough touch (for instance in an orphanage setting), not only does their cognitive development slow down, but they are more prone to infections and sickness.

Loving touch as children is key to our cognitive, emotional, and physiological development.

I think that’s why this picture is so beautiful to me. It is a picture of the sweetness humans are made to touch and be touched, of the safety and comfort of being clean and taken care of. Look how firmly the mama holds the baby, look how comfortable, unworried, and unashamed the little girl looks. She is not only safe, she is clean, she is cared for, and she is loved. This feeling, stored deep in our skin, our nerves, our bones is what forms our sense of who we are, of what the world is like, of what we can do and not do.

This is why violent or inappropriate touch as a young child, or neglect of touch can have such a profound effect well into our adult years.

To heal, one has to learn to feel deep in their bones that they are safe in the world. That touch can heal as well as hurt. A book which beautifully and scientifically shows this to be true is Bessel Van Der Kolk’s work The Body Keeps the Score (2014). Read what he says.

BEFRIENDING THE BODY

Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.

In my practice I begin the process by helping my patients to first notice and then describe the feelings in their bodies—not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on. I also work on identifying the sensations associated with relaxation or pleasure. I help them become aware of their breath, their gestures and movements.

All too often, however, drugs such as Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with such distressing physical reactions. Of course, medications only blunt sensations and do nothing to resolve them or transform them from toxic agents into allies.

The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.

  • Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

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I opened this section with Psalm 22 where the Psalmist says God “led me to trust You at my mother’s breast.” Our bodies crave touch as desperately as food or water. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. And in this most physical manifestation of human neediness is a testament for another profound desire …

… to touch God.

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Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American impressionist painter who spent most of her life in Paris. Most of her paintings are portraits taking place in domestic settings. She had a long and fractious friendship with Edgar Degas. To learn more about her, check out this short biography

3. Musical — Ave Verum Corpus by William Byrd

Then Jesus said to Thomas “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side...”
— John 20:27

There is an ache in the human soul that is so essential that almost every philosophy and system of religion tries to explain it. It is some times described as a lack, a wound, a failure to achieve some unknown goal. The old theologians say it is because we are made for union with God. Saint Augustine famously wrote, “We are restless until we find our rest in you.” But how can that ache for intimacy ever be satisfied? How can the gap between ourselves and the Beloved, which we so naturally cross with affection in our human relationships, ever be crossed when the divide seems to be infinite— the gap between our fleshbound world, and God’s infinite Spirit?

In Christ, and in communion, God invites us to touch and be touched by Him.

In Love, God has made Himself available to us.

He has bridged the divide.

English:

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
having truly suffered, sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
from whose pierced side
water and blood flowed:
Be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death!

O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus,
O Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.

Latin:

Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,[2]
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:[3]
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.[4]

O Iesu dulcis, O Iesu pie,
O Iesu, fili Mariae.
Miserere mei. Amen.[5]

God does not circumvent our need for touch, satisfying it in some disembodied spiritual way. He invites us, like Thomas to feel his wounds, to touch his hands, to sit at his table every week and eat.

Bibliography:

further reading

Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics)
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Joy Clarkson2 Comments