Touch

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How blessed we are to have five senses! With our eyes we can behold the beauty of God’s creation. With our ears we can listen to the hymn of the universe. With our nose we can smell the fragrance that fills the air. With our taste we can enjoy the deliciousness of being alive. With our touch we can feel and state beyond what words can express. We often talk about a healing touch. Do we not?

The blind cannot see; they live in a world of darkness. The deaf cannot hear; they live in a world of silence. Those who have no sense of smell must live in a perfume less world. Those who have no sense of taste, having lost their appetite, live in a world that is insipid. Those who have no sense of touch are numb and live in a world without feeling.

Have you not observed the infant being breast fed? He looks intently at the mother; he listens to her as she makes baby talk; he scents with instinctive recognition the smell of her bosom; he tastes with delight the fresh warm milk with which he is suckled; and at times with his little palms holds her breast as if to say: “It is all mine!” Nursing an infant is much more than merely feeding it. Senses are nature’s nurture helping us to grow.

If this is true of the infant, it is equally, if not more true, of the adult. God has blessed us with five senses to help us to grow. It is such a pity that we can have eyes but fail to see, by closing our eyes to beauty; that we can have ears but fail to listen, by shutting our ears to music; that we can eat without really tasting and get through a meal merely masticating; that we can miss out on the fragrances that nature offers so freely; that we can touch with a numbness that lacks feeling. Though the senses are so much part of our body, yet they have so much to offer to our soul as well.

There are some schools of spirituality that tend to ignore, if not regard the senses with some suspicion. Some even advocate the mortification of the senses! Mortification literally means putting to death. Following this counsel would actually result in killing life. Would it not? I remember while in formation as juniors we were forewarned about the rule of touch. Moral theology manuals in those days at least in their fine print scholion section categorised the anatomy of the human body into parts that were delectantes et valde delectantes – pleasure providing and exceedingly pleasure providing – as they dealt with erogenous zones and “no go areas”.

There is undoubtedly wisdom in these counsels. One cannot throw caution to the winds and indulge in compulsive tangitis. Do we not know persons and cultures that talk with their hands? There is always the danger of manipulative toxic affection which harms both the giver and the recipient; where the personal privacy of an individual is invaded. But to steel and starve oneself from tactile contacts altogether because of possible dangers is tantamount to saying that one must not cross the road because accidents occur. Life would come to a standstill if every one stayed on the pavement! We need to look at the body not as the prison of the soul but rather as its useful ally. The body, far from stunting our spiritual life and well being, can be harnessed to strengthen its growth. While all the senses are important, possibly the most intense and intimate sense is the sense of touch. In the other senses, there is little or no physical contact; whereas the sense of touch cannot be exercised without tactile contact. It is in touch that two persons in their bodies meet.

As human beings, we have a deep physical and emotional need for touch. I remember many years ago, I was guiding a retreat in India to religious sisters. Attached to the convent was an orphanage run by the sisters for abandoned children – infants at times left at the convent gates at night or babies who had been disowned. One morning, after mass and breakfast, robed in my soutane, accompanied by the sister warden, I went to visit the crèche and the nursery. It must have been a strange sight for those little ones to see a man dressed in a long white gown. But to my utter surprise, a child ran up to me. And as I patted its head with a blessing, the child wanted me to carry it! I lifted that child in my arms. Lo and behold there was a second child eagerly awaiting its turn. The one already in my arms refused to be let down to the great amusement of the sister warden. So now I had two children in my arms! And then came a third tugging at my sash also wanting to be carried! I just about managed to lift the third child too without dropping the other two! But then came a fourth. I was strong and strapping then, but I had in all honesty to admit my physical inability to do more!

I have never forgotten that incident. It taught me what academics write about touch deprivation, skin hunger and hug inhibition. The gift of touch is possibly the most powerful and profound physical healing therapy we can give ourselves. Touch therapists advocate: four hugs a day for survival; eight hugs a day for maintenance and twelve hugs a day for growth! In what appears at times a hands off culture in which we live, we need to discern and decide the dosage for ourselves. All our senses are God given. They are therefore blessings. The less we use our senses, the more senseless we become!

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