Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Healing Touch

With Mom on her 84th birthday in 1999.

As I get older, I have fewer opportunities to be touched. I knew that about old age even before I got there, and that’s why I’m sitting so close to my mother in the above photograph, my arm around her. I had noticed the need particularly among the older women of our neighborhood church. The passing of the peace was an opportunity for older folk to receive and give full-on hugs. Now I am grateful for such hugs in greeting or in parting worship.

Perhaps it’s because we regard older people as fragile. Perhaps because of due respect for the aging process, a reverential aspect. Perhaps because we older people are less attractive or no longer “breeding material.”

I have written of an experience of lovemaking that restored my sense of lovability in my book, Come Home! The “healer” in that case visited Atlanta last year and I was able to give him a copy of the book, marking the passage and expressing my gratitude.

But those opportunities are rarer as one ages, even when in a relationship.

In an email exchange with a friend and reader of this blog concerned about losing the gay parts of himself as he enters an assisted living program, I waxed philosophic about my own situation:

As a youth I had fantasies. As an adult I had experiences. As a senior I have memories. I need to hold on to my memories even though they don’t have the anticipatory ecstasy of fantasies or the existential bliss of experiences.

So, simple touch becomes all the more important.

When I was a kid, I used to love sitting in the car as a gas station attendant cleaned our windshield, enjoying the gentle rocking of the car—oh, the olden days of full service stations! I also enjoyed getting my hair cut, and my initiation rite into manhood was when, after many years, the barber finally honed a straight razor to trim my sideburns. These were gentle and safe ways to have a man touch me, and I found them healing.

My father enjoyed telling the story of rocking me as a baby while I steadfastly refused to go to sleep. I no doubt simply enjoyed my father or mother’s touch, being held close to their hearts. (As late as my teens, my joke with Mom was that I could still sit on her lap!) No doubt my body remembers and that’s why I enjoy cuddling so much.

All of this comes to mind because of a transforming incident during my recent contemplative retreat. Though our Roman Catholic hosts were welcoming beyond mere hospitality, their church does not allow offering Communion to Protestants. I do not like this, as you might guess, and I had decided not to go forward to merely receive a blessing. But in moving out of the way to let others in my pew pass by, a smiling sister gently urged me to go forward for a blessing. So I did, crossing my arms to indicate my heresy of being a Protestant.

I expected the tall and very aged priest to simply make the sign of the cross in the air and say a blessing. Instead, he gently touched my forehead while saying a blessing. The power of his touch jolted me. I immediately felt good inside, and the bliss remained with me for an hour. I could not help but think his power was deeply spiritual.

The next time I went forward for Communion, another aged priest made the sign of the cross on my forehead with oil, and I did not experience the same jolt of spiritual power. And I realized I couldn’t even remember if the earlier priest had made the sign of the cross on my forehead; I just felt power from the palm of his hand on my head.

With all the conversation these days about inappropriate touching, by priests and other professionals, I sorrow that this may lead to less healing touch. I remember how my mother’s first graders used to hang on her, begging to be touched and hugged, even after they went on to higher grades.

Being old, I have during this same time had to go to a dentist, an orthodontist, and an oral surgeon to repair or remove two “virgin” teeth which broke. My dentist praised me as one of his best patients, I think because I have a high tolerance for discomfort and pain, no doubt learned in part as a gay activist in the church! (Smile)

But their healing touch also made it possible for me to sit still for some difficult procedures. After two root canals, I explained that the orthodontist’s abdomen pressed against my head during the procedure was somehow comforting. I asked if he did that intentionally to calm his patients, but he explained it was just ergonomically sound, otherwise his reach over me would tire his shoulders as he worked on my teeth with the help of the lens of a microscope over my head.

I thought of Temple Grandin, the autistic expert in animal science who discovered she could calm herself by a device of her own invention that held her and later applied that to an invention to calm cattle on the way to slaughter. There is something calming about being held and touched, whether facing life or death.

As a progressive Christian, one of my reservations about Jesus being known as a physical and mental healer is that such magical qualities do not fit my desire for him to be known rather as a spiritual mentor and healer.

But maybe his touch was like that of the priest’s, or that of the orthodontist’s, or that of a hugger, or that of a lover—especially when visited upon so many people who were “untouchables”: lepers, epileptics, the sick, the dying and dead, those with physical or developmental disabilities. Women of his time were considered untouchable during menstruation. Children were assumed unclean, one of the reasons his disciples tried to send them away.

“Suffer the little children to come unto me” could as easily mean “Suffer those who are untouchable to come unto me.”

Related Post: Held by God

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 


  1. A wonderful meditation, Chris. In the 1960s and 70s, when the Episcopal Church was doing research to support revisions to the American Book of Common Prayer, the revival of the physical passing of the peace was justified in part by scientific evidence concerning the importance of touch. It was already known at that time that newborns who do not receive loving touch will die. It was also recognized that, with elderly people increasingly living alone, they could go from week to week without ever being touched. I too worry that our contemporary concern about inappropriate or unwanted touching may obscure the insight that touch is needed and can be a means of grace. This is the theory behind the sacramental rite called “Laying on of Hands”, and it is also the rationale for honoring the “Apostolic Succession” of bishops. Jesus consecrated the first apostles by laying hands on them. When they consecrated new apostles/bishops, they in turn lay hands on them. In traditions which embrace Apostolic Succession, it is believed that today’s bishops have been touched by bishops who were touched by other bishops who, ultimately, were touched by Jesus himself. It makes sense that physical connection would be an essential part of God’s creation. Why else Incarnation?

    1. Amen, Donn! Good to hear from you, especially with these profound and spiritual reasons for touch. Thank you!

  2. What wonderful musings. I did not grow up in a home of huggers, even though I had the most loving mother ever. Touching for me, growing up, was inappropriate and I never liked being hugged...particularly from men I wasn't close to. Fortunately, I started attending a 'hugging' church in my late 30's. While I could still tolerate a hug if it was quick and not lingering, it took me a long time until I was able to handle big hugs. But, my aversion gradually diminished.

    My daughter and I weren't huggers (mainly because she was a difficult teenager who was so over her parents.) She made it clear that she did not want any affectionate gestures. We simply got out of the habit of hugging. But, as we have gotten older, we now cherish those loving touches between us.

    I love hugs now...I guess because I am 'old" like you. And, if my mother were alive, I would hug her every chance I got. Years ago, I got in the habit of giving my step-father and father-in-law a kiss when we would leave them. It was amazing how those simple kisses were obviously cherished by them. My father-in-law was a very grumpy old man...but he always softened when I kissed him goodbye.

    Touch is a wonderful thing.

    1. My mother said she grew up in a family that didn't hug, but she knew her parents loved her nonetheless. I don't know how she picked up the habit of hugging, but I'm glad she did. A recent Sunday I hugged someone at church, and after I wondered if it was the right thing to do. Not everyone feels comfortable with hugging, and I have to pay better attention to others' desire or discomfort. Thanks, Kelsey, for reminding us all of differences in this regard! And I'm glad you became a hugger!

  3. Thank you for this reflection. It is a great blessing to me, and I wish that I could give you more than a cyber hug for it.

    Norman Pittenger told me once of an agonizing experience he had while teaching at General Seminary. He had to tell a very fine young man that unfortunately he had not done the required work and would fail.

    He broke the news as gently as he could. The two were standing by a window that looked into the close.

    The young man was silent.

    Pitty Pat, as Norman was known affectionately to all the students, gently touched the student's shoulder. To his shock, the young man broke into heaving sobs.

    "I am so, so sorry, son," Norman consoled.

    "No, professor, you don't understand. I know I did not complete my work and I should take the course again. I am not crying over that....... but.....just now you became the first white man that has ever touched me. I am so grateful! You have always treated me as a real human being."

    1. Thanks, Louie, for this touching story. Norman Pittenger gave a series of lectures at Yale Div School when I was there. A gentle, bright man he was! Please forgive my delay in publishing your comment. I sometimes take a sabbatical from the internet. Good to hear from you again!

  4. Beautiful Reflection!
    Thank you so much for sharing this.