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Touch is a loaded subject

Touch is a loaded subject

By Donald Schell

I taught my dad to hug me, but not until after I’d been away from home for a dozen years, after my first marriage and the birth of his first grandchild, after my ordination, after my divorce and my second marriage, and after the birth of his second grandchild. I was in my early thirties.

I started teaching him to hug when we lived thirteen hours from my parents’ house, a very long day’s drive from our small town in Idaho down to the place in California where I’d grown up. After the first of those long drives, I startled my dad when we pulled into my parents’ drive and I burst out of the car and threw my arms around him in greeting. He smiled, but he felt stiff as if I’d put him in a straitjacket. Once I began, I persisted deliberately, and visit by visit slowly felt dad lose his startled response as he came to expect the hug. Eventually I felt him enjoying it. When we were leaving to drive back to Idaho, I’d hug him again and add, “I love you, Dad.” And in the same flow of re-patterning, “I love you too, Donald,” eventually declared what I’d felt for years in his accepting, affirming silence.

Listening was dad’s gift, listening and reflection. He remembered what he heard and thought about it, but dad was a measured, almost reticent speaker. Partly, I’d guess it was his generation, and maybe also the war and the deliberateness of touch that’s required of a physician, but my dad was cautious showing physical affection to his children– just a tussle of the hair. Still I never doubted his love and I had done my best to take into myself that patience and caring listening I felt in his presence and heard in the stories he told me of his medical practice.

Actually before I taught my dad, I had to teach myself to hug in greeting. It was a deliberate choice, a conscious change in behavior partly prompted, I guess by the generational shift that had younger people copying the Kennedys. We were learning from Europe, so we drank Cappuccino, preferred films with subtitles and hugged in greeting. Maybe people who’d put their bodies on the line in nonviolent love shaped us too, somehow. And doubtless the Summer of Love and Woodstock figured in our cultural shift.

For me it wasn’t just cultural, learning to hug had a spiritual heart and impetus. We moved to Idaho in 1976 after about fifteen hundred liturgies where I’d given and received hugs as we offered God’s peace to one another. At daily liturgies over six years, two in an Episcopal seminary and four in my first work at Episcopal Church at Yale, we’d made liturgical enactments of Christ’s peace in shared embraces around a congregation.

Whatever had gone into it, when Ellen and I moved from Connecticut to Idaho, it felt like a seismic moment. We had learned something together, something in our world had changed that we consciously and deliberately took to our new home in Idaho. And I chose to take my relationship with my dad along.

I had heard from colleagues that some people’s pained response to The Peace was, “I don’t come to church to greet other people and chat. I want to talk to God. I’ll greet my friends at coffee hour. I first heard that response myself in Idaho after I’d been a priest for five years.

There for the first time I heard the baffled, angry voices of good people who didn’t see how greeting another Christian in the liturgy could have anything to do with meeting God. With the best respect and compassion I could muster at twenty-nine I listened. From the simple hugs of six solid years of daily liturgy I knew in my bones that God could appear in ritual embrace of friend, stranger, and temporary ecclesial adversary. At its best body knowledge like that doesn’t need to win an argument. Hug by hug, my Idaho friends learned to embrace each other.

Now I’m asking myself to recall what I knew in my bones, because what’s got me thinking back over teaching my dad to hug and say, “I love you,” is pushing me hard toward making an argument when I need to listen and invite us to think together.

I’m concerned at how I see us Episcopalians keeping one another at arms’ length for the peace. I’m concerned that we’re backing away from the closer space where we can give and receive the caring, respectful touch we need. And I write this with deliberate caution, aiming for respect and compassion, because I do know how troubling touch can be for some.

So, patiently and compassionately I hope, I’m asking how we want to touch one another and be touched in the liturgy. And I’m concerned at this Eastertide, this season of hearing Jesus’ “Peace be with you,” that we’re seeing erosion of liturgical practice, as culturally manageable handshakes replace the healing, embarrassing awkwardness of ritual embrace.

Again, I know touch is a loaded subject, and we even find some of the mystery around that charge in the resurrection Gospels. When Jesus greets Mary Magdalene outside the tomb in John’s Gospel, he emphatically warns her, ‘Do not cling to me,’ and tells her instead to run tell the disciples that he’s “ascending to my God and your God, to my Father and your Father.” The scene hinges on Mary’s hearing her own name and Jesus telling her DON’T touch. So he steps back from touch, and doesn’t make his ringing resurrection greeting, “Peace be with you.” Those words come later, when Jesus appears where Mary and the other disciples are huddled together in their locked hideout. There he speaks that greeting that enacts what it offers.

Each time in the Gospels that Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” it’s a resurrection appearance, in fact a decisive resurrection appearance to the gathered community. In Luke, it’s explicitly ‘the eleven and their companions’ who are already gathered when Cleopas and his companion return from the Inn at Emmaus. In John it’s “the disciples,” implicitly including Mary Magdalene the first time but minus Thomas, so the second time he appears again to correct that omission and include Thomas in the community’s experience. In that first appearance to the gathered disciples in John, Jesus’ even says, “Peace be with you” TWICE. Each time Jesus says those powerful, life-changing words, it’s to a complete or nearly complete gathering of the founding community.

The writers of these two Gospels turn a familiar Jewish greeting into words that signify God’s breaking the power of death, estrangement, and everything else that silences love. In Luke after Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” he explicitly invites touch. In John, in the first appearance, he breathes on the disciples (but I’m picturing the Middle-Eastern gesture that readers may have recognized as a one-by-one blessing, the one blessing holding wrists to the sides of the blessed one’s head and breathing across the top of the head). In the second appearance in John Jesus invites Thomas to touch him.

The resurrected Jesus’ “Peace be with you” addresses the whole community, enacts an intimacy with Jesus, and changes who those hearing it will be.

With the Prayer Book reforms of the 70’s we began making such an exchange at The Peace a part of our regular liturgical experience. We moved through our awkwardness and felt the transforming power of our sisters’ and brothers’ faces and touch in the liturgy and sensed something new (or remembered something long forgotten) about the power of touch and being present to one another face to face as we prayed. I was hungry for everything we were doing. I felt my skin touched by ancient memory and inherited body patterning that makes touch healing and reconciling for most people.

In the conservative Christian setting where I grew up some of my Sunday School teachers asked why would anyone want to hold or embrace a person they weren’t married to except to flirt with the possibility of adultery? And wasn’t that all dancing was, a deliberate temptation to sin? Through high school and most of college, I said, “I don’t dance,” but saying it embarrassed me. I meant I didn’t know how to dance and was afraid to look foolish as I learned.

A folk dance group on our college campus gave me an unimagined new freedom, a beginning in my own history of finding my way to be at home in this body. In the 1960’s first visits to the Episcopal Church, kneeling and crossing myself, and coming forward to receive communion all felt like big steps toward inhabiting the body God gave me.

Since 1981, thirty years of daily Aikido practice have given me an hour every morning of being grabbed, held or struck at by women and men, close-partnered work that has us moving closer into people’s space than anyone would move socially in this culture – It’s reconciliation practice rather than striking back, but the creative process that gets us there crosses into people’s “personal space” a hundred times a morning.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says to the disciples, he breathes on the twelve, and then in the next story says to Thomas, “Here are my hands and side. Touch me.”

I don’t know if I would have said it when I was teaching my dad to hug me, but certainly now I see the whole liturgy as a practice in reconciling intimacy, a practice significantly enacted by touch. How many ways do we touch one another in the liturgy? In all those ways we offer ourselves to one another as signs and instruments of God’s reconciling presence.

Touch is one of liturgy’s crucial, human building blocks. The restoration of The Peace to the liturgy almost forty years ago changed our church, but the work is not done. We’ve learned a great deal in the last thirty years about people’s fear of touch, about people for whom touch unleashes nightmares of real memories, of boundaries crossed, of bodies used, of selves made objects. Thinking of boundaries, thinking of people who can’t bear to be touched, thinking of people who abuse touch, I’ve moved from simple frustration at The Peace offered or received by someone whose body is angled away, left shoulder as remote as possible while the right arm is extended in a stiff, distancing handshake. I’ve become curious. I’m looking for grace and understanding in this event. I hope and pray it’s moving me to a new and wiser compassion. And I’m glad when it also moves us past a handshake to a hug.

Curiosity? I’m listening and working to feel the fear of touch that abuse brings. I welcome learning of neurological differences – for example Temple Grandin’s powerful witness to her autistic experience of the panic at touch as her autistic neurology and physiology plunged her into communication overload from a simple hug.

Recently I’ve been fascinated recently to read University of California professor Dacher Keltner’s research on the evolutionary roots and neurology of feelings and how we use them (in his book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life). Among the primal adaptive feelings he’s researched, like kindness, embarrassment, smile, laughter, tease, touch, love, compassion, and awe, embarrassment stands out as an evolutionary adaptation that Keltner argues makes human community and relationship possible. Sociopaths and people whose orbitofrontal cortexes are damaged can’t feel embarrassment and so are at constant risk of anti-social speech or expressions of anger or disdain.

Keltner’s observation about embarrassment got noticing how each and every liturgical exchange of the Peace does begin with a tiny moment of negotiation. Will we be most faithful and authentic in letting the handshake be our sign? Is this someone who’d welcome a closer touch, a left hand on the other arm or a half-hug? Now increasingly I’m coming to see that both sides of that negotiation and whatever expression of resurrection peace we produce is holy.

In the resurrection accounts, the disciples are afraid and, I think we can add, embarrassed, abashed, and ashamed in the presence of the Beloved whose death they fled, and to this shame and embarrassment, Jesus offers his greeting of Peace and his touch. Embarrassment is part of the work of reconciliation and community building. Our embarrassment reminds us and communicates to others our felt commitment to community. To the extended hand, when can I offer a second hand for a double handshake, an arm to the upper arm for a half-hug, and my gratitude that Jesus asks us to touch?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


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Linda McMillan

I see that in most of the comments people have said why they prefer not to be hugged, or touched. And that’s good. We all have reasons. But I don’t think it’s necessary.

No one should have to justify not wanting to be touched, much less hugged, and especially by a stranger! It is OK to just say, “No.”

When we have to justify ourselves, we are really saying that hugging is the norm and the rest of us have some explaining to do. Well, we don’t. No reason required. “No,” is enough.

Ann Fontaine

Dear Anonymous poster – thank you so much for articulating a deep piece of why I had difficulty with this essay. I hope if you visit an Episcopal church you will be honored and not oppressed with unwanted touch.

Dear Olive – re: handshaking – in many cultures a firm handshake is perceived as an attempt at dominance. A light touch – even the limp hand is an exchange of equals.

Everyone- such a good discussion – so much to learn from one another.

Jim Naughton

posted for an anonymous commenter:

This article was very eye-opening for me. It allowed me to see at least some of the culture of the Episcopal Church. I have been searching for a new church home, and considered visiting my local Episcopal Church, as it is liturgical. This article has let me know I was correct in deciding not to.

Frankly, as someone on the autistic spectrum, a survivor of childhood abuse, and merely as an introvert, I found this article offensive.

Who is to say, where is it written on stone tablets, that your personal level of comfort with touch — a comfort that is admittedly not natural but self-trained, like the taste for caviar — should be the gold standard an entire church has to aim for?

Indeed, is this what you are saying? Clearly you hold a high personal value for the inclusion of touch, and even consider it of liturgical worth. Do you think it should be inflicted on people? Is “No, thank you” an acceptable answer? Is there freedom in your service for this “no, thank you” to be heard and respected? (Or would it be so unusual it would create chaos and even worse embarrassment, or be overridden? Can you fathom how distressful this might be for some people?) Is this freedom anywhere stated?

Why isn’t a respectful, verbal “Peace be with you” meeting God in our fellow man?

Also, “every liturgical exchange of the Peace does begin with a tiny moment of negotiation … I’ve come to see that both sides of that negotiation … holy.” It might be holy, if authenticity were allowed. But is it? If certain parties start out with a disadvantage, is this not a power relation in the guise of negotiation?

I challenge you to consider how that situation with your father would have been with the ages reversed? With a father endlessly pushing for more physical affection than the son was comfortable with?

Actually, such a thing did happen on an ecclesiastical level with the Catholic Church. The difference, of course, was the inclusion of sexual expression, and the power differential. The power trip of pushing boundaries, the pressure to touch, was there. Since you are an Episcopal priest, this power differential might come into play and your personal desires might be seen as norms. I’m surprised you don’t seem aware of that very real danger.

You don’t bring up the fact that there are those for whom touch is so sexualized that it is a temptation to them. (No, on another read, I see that you do bring it up, but in a mocking tone.)

Yes, I’m astounded that such an article could be written so soon after the Catholic pedophilia crisis.

You mention autism and abuse survivors (and it amazes me that, being aware of this, you could still hold your stance). You say you’re “listening and working” … you say you’re aware of “people who can’t bear to be touched” … yet this entire essay comes across as patronizing and dismissive of them, putting them on the hot seat or the therapist’s couch. (Especially that callous, demeaning description of “someone whose body is angled away, left shoulder as remote as possible,” etc.) Your aim seems to be, like with your father, to move in and push them to change as quickly as possible, because they aren’t acceptable as they are.

Yes. Most of all, most hurtful (and least healing) … it looks like you don’t see people as okay the way they are.

Do you also see introversion as a sickness that needs to be overcome, rather than a valid type of temperament?

Does your church treat gays this way? Imply that what makes them different is “wrong” and should be “fixed”?

Is this inclusiveness? Did Christ run around treating people like this?

Yours was the attitude of the people who literally kidnapped me into a horrible Cursillo-spinoff weekend. During that weekend, with every avenue of escape blocked, experiencing constant abuse flashbacks, I was forcibly “fixed” by people who had your belief — people who were disrespectful, ignorant, and overly confident of their ability as amateur therapists and spiritual directors. They played Holy Spirit for other people instead of covering their mouths and falling down in trembling reverence before God.

I could turn your psychoanalysis around on you. On the basis of what is written here, I could say to you that maybe there is a problem with your thoughtless extroversion, your flesh-hunger, that leads you use situations like the Greeting of Peace to subtly embarrass people and push their physical boundaries. A sort of bleached, sexless frotteurism.

If I were to suggest this to you, how would it feel? Maybe, then, you shouldn’t do so to others.

Olivia Kuser

Doanld-an addendum to my first response:

I think the question here is not really whether to hug or to shake hands ( my first response was completely sidelined by my love of shaking hands) but rather how do we make a common, everyday gesture carry a new and liturgical meaning? How do we make it clearly and unequivocally liturgical? I know we do this with other common activities- singing, dancing etc. every single Sunday. We do it most importantly and successfully at the altar, when we eat and drink, and yet it is obviously not dinnertime. I am not at all disturbed that sometimes the Peace is merely a “friendly greeting”- that actually seems like a pretty good outcome to me, nor does Leesy’s concern about proforma hugs disturb me. Sometimes, the liturgy is dry as dust to me, and it’s not because of the liturgy-people often blame Rite I for instance- but really it’s me. I’m just dry as dust sometimes. Inherent in the question of how do we make an ordinary gesture a symbolic gesture is the question of people’s responses to the meaning(s) of the gesture. Of course all actions will come trailing clouds of meaning from people’s personal histories, cultures and even pathologies. How is it for an anorexic for instance to eat and drink at Communion? I know several recovering alcoholics who all have different strategies for dealing with the Communion wine, for instance. So-how do we hug, or shake hands, or clasp double handedly- whatever-DIFFERENTLY- to express our communion with one another?

Love, Olivia

Olivia Kuser

Dear Donald et al.,

This is a great topic! First off, I should come clean and say that I personally love shaking hands, and mourn the general loss of handshaking in modern life. As I was an extremely shy child and still have attacks of shyness, it is entirely possible that a handshake feels as intimate as a hug to me. Perhaps it is in some ways even more intimate as you generally meet the eyes of the person you are shaking hands with and for me, that is the hard part- touching and looking at a stranger at the same time. I finally mastered that, with some struggle, and then they changed the rules! There is literally no standard greeting any more- you never know if it’s going to be a hug, a hug and a kiss, a real or an air kiss, one cheek or two cheek kiss…the simple, lovely, friendly handshake seems to have gone the way of the dodo. I remember learning to shake hands with visiting adults from my parents and also remember the social terror I felt at our annual Christmas party when I had to shake dozens of hands as our guests arrived (from warm to cold, moist and clammy or curiously dry, “limp fish” or firm- there were handshake evaders, who left your outstretched hand just embarrassingly out there, mostly women, and horrible hand crushing grippers, mostly large, bluff men). My mother used to say “you can tell so much about a person by how they shake your hand” and I thought that was true. There was always someone, who shook your hand “just right” and I can still think of adults whom I trusted first off, from their handshake with me.

The key phrase to me in your piece is that the Peace greeting always “begins with a tiny moment of negotiation”. Having now capitulated to the hug, I am not as adept with it as I would like. I have deeply regretted times when I have swooped onto some poor soul who has stuck out their hand for me to shake at the Peace and I have over ridden that into a hug because I didn’t spot it early enough in my swoop. Sometimes I have been able to apologize for that verbally, or been able to joke about it with the person but not always. I am just not socially adept enough.

And that I think is the great blessing of ritual- and manners as well. When you cannot invent or create a way to respond authentically in the moment, due to shyness or even just not having had enough coffee before coming to church, the ‘correct’ ritual gesture is not a tyrant, it is a helper. I feel the single ritual gesture receives ample nuance from its varied practitioners, as those long ago remembered handshakes did from my childhood.

Love, Olivia

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