On Touch ...
Being pregnant is a pretty incredible experience. I have been so grateful to experience the phenomenon one more time with our second child, and continue to be amazed by the miracle of pregnancy. Of course, being pregnant comes with a certain set of consequences too. The funniest for me has been the way that the mother’s body becomes fodder for public consumption. Not only does there seem to be a constant conversation about my changing body (usually accompanied by comments that would never be acceptable at any other time – like how “enormous” my body is getting); there also seems to be a strange longing to touch the growing belly, even by total strangers.
In general I have mixed feelings about being touched. Understanding the miracle of pregnancy and the life and hope that it generates, I understand the longing to be connected to that gift. I am especially patient about this longing when it comes from much older women – women who are long past childbearing age, and who in their advanced age seem to appreciate the gift of life more than those of us who are much younger. But there is also a strange and somewhat uncomfortable intimacy that comes from having someone touch your belly – something you would never be permitted to at any other stage of life.
So imagine my surprise this past weekend while on retreat when, without permission or warning, a 90-year old Franciscan brother immediately placed his hands on my belly when he discovered I was pregnant. He broke into a beautiful and meaningful blessing on my pregnancy, my unborn child, and my pending delivery, making the sign of the cross on my stomach. Though my instinct was to pull away when he first touched me, somehow, his steady hands and his heartfelt blessing held me still.
As the brother pulled away with an encouraging smile, I realized two things. One, I think we as a people have become incredibly guarded about touch. We separate ourselves so much through technology and creating appropriate boundaries that, in the end, we sometimes limit touch altogether. Life can become incredibly lonely and lack intimacy when the basic gift of touch – whether a held hand, a hug, or a reassuring pat – is denied to us as a society. Two, as a priest, I think our profession has become so guarded about safe church practices that we forget the power of touch in our ministries. It has never occurred to me to touch another pregnant woman’s belly to bless her – even when she is a longtime parishioner. Even if the thought had occurred to me, I am sure I would have asked permission, felt self-conscious about the act, and stumbled over my words in my fumbling. But this Franciscan brother reminded me that part of our job as clergy is to honor and celebrate the intimacy that Christian community creates, and to invite people into that sacred space. Though I realize there is always a time and place to respect the danger of touch and the harm that it can do, I wonder if out of our caution we have not lost out on opportunities to open up the spaces where God can bless and sanctify all stages of life through the power of touch. I know there are no simple answers, but having experienced the blessedness of sacred touch, I am grateful for a church that is willing to try to find the balance.