The Sense of Touch

Elias Canetti opens his powerful collection Crowds and Power with these lines:

Elias Canetti opens his powerful collection Crowds and Power with these lines: "There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it."

At Christmas, we encounter the terror of touch. God runs a finger tenderly along the face of the world. Human flesh flashes with the fire of the Divine. It burns. It is ecstatic. For a moment we are fully human, not just hominid.

In 1971, Ashley Montagu published Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin and returned touch to cultural consciousness. We have learned that cuddling infants is crucial to their emotional well-being. Breast-feeding, more than just a mechanism for milk, is a primal experience of bonding. In the developing human, it establishes a sense of safety in the world.

"The first article on touch, so far as I know, was my own published in 1950," Montagu said in a 1994 interview with Michael Mendizze. "It is strange that we should have waited till the middle of the 20th century to pick up on the importance of this tremendously complex organ, the largest organ in the body, which most of us thought was just a covering to prevent us from falling apart! The skin…is derived from exactly the same embryological layer as is the internal brain and spinal cord."

It took a while for the modern world to catch on to what the ancient world already knew. What were those Christmas moments like when Mary’s hands first caressed the impossibly soft skin of her newborn? Gazed into his eyes? Felt him pull, tug, and bite at her breast? She was not just a vessel of Divine intent. Mary shaped Jesus into a human being through the force and affections of her body.

Jesus learned Mary’s lessons well. Touch was significant to his ministry throughout his life. He touched lepers, the blind, the lame. He gathered children into his arms and touched their heads. With loving care, he ran his hands along the feet of his disciples.

TOUCH, HOWEVER, is always "touchy." It crosses boundaries. In U.S. culture, we have a presumption against touch. "Look, but don’t touch" describes behavior toward objects, but is also used to describe relations between people. New immigrants are schooled in the American anti-touch culture. A recent POV documentary on the "Lost Boys" of Sudan depicts the Dinka men learning that, in the United States, they must not walk with their arms on each other’s shoulders or their elbows linked or leaning against each other in public.

In Jesus’ life, touch was also vibrantly political. He allowed himself to be touched by the bleeding woman who reached him through the crowd and the woman anointer at Bethany. He received Judas’ ambiguous kiss and the violent soldiers’ blows. After his death women touched him, washed him, rubbed oil into his skin, and wrapped his body in linens. Even resurrected Jesus said to Thomas, "Touch me and see. No ghost has flesh and bones like this."

Our lack of experience in healthful, affectionate touching - in Christian communities and the broader culture - has led to an explosion of unhealthy and violent manifestations of touch. Pedophilia, incest, rape, beatings, and self-mutilation are all experiences of touch as domination. This is dehumanizing touch, not touch as a gift revealing the delights of being truly human.

We fear the unknown touch, says Canetti. And that may be true. But we crave the affectionate intimate touch that comes with incarnation. "An ordinary hand," writes poet Anne Sexton, "just lonely for something to touch that touches back… [Then] Your hand found mine. Life rushed to my fingers like a blood clot. Oh, my carpenter, the fingers are rebuilt. They dance with yours."

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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