October 1, 2009
Touch is the first sense to develop in the human embryo. Within three weeks of conception, there already is a primitive nervous system which links skin cells to a developing brain. Touch is often referred to as the "mother of all senses." The other senses of sight, sound, taste, and smell are derived from it.
Research has amply shown that touch is extremely important for the development of infants. Touch actually induces therapeutic benefits in both children and adults. Human touch is essential to our physical and spiritual well-being.
Not only is our sense of touch the earliest sense to function, but our sense of touch remains one of the most powerful forms of communication throughout our life. We speak through our sense of touch. A handshake or warm embrace unites in friendship and love. An angry fist or discourteous shove divide. Touch, at times, brings harm; at other times, healing. In fact, we cannot touch another person without ourselves being touched in return (cf., O. Zur and N.Nordmarken,
To Touch Or Not Touch: Exploring the Myth of Prohibition On Touch In Psychotherapy And Counseling, 2009).
The Scriptures witness to the important place that touch plays in God’s plan to restore creation to his original design. Through touch, the prophet Elijah raises the son of the widow of Zarephath from death (cf. 1 Kgs 17: 17-24). Through touch, the prophet Elisha brings back to life the only son of the woman of Shunem (cf. 2 Kgs 4:4-37). Jesus cures the leper of his disease and restores him to society by reaching out and touching him (cf. Luke 5:12-16). He also cures the woman suffering with an issue of blood for twelve years when she touches the hem of his garment (cf. Mt 9:20-22).
When Jesus sends the disciples out on mission, he gives them a share in his power to heal (cf. Lk 9:1-2; 10:1-12). At the Ascension when he sends them into the world to continue his mission, he reconfirms them in their ministry of healing (cf. Mk 16:14-18). As in his ministry, human touch plays an important role.
Acts of the Apostles reports that people were intent in coming into contact with the apostles, to touch them either directly or indirectly, in order to be healed.
In the case of Peter, people “carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that, when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them. A large number of people from the towns in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered, bringing the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits, and they were all cured” (Acts 5:15-16). In the case of Paul, “when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Act 19:11-12). Even indirect contact that places someone in touch with God’s chosen instruments brought healing.
There is an interesting story related in the Old Testament that shows that touching the relics of a saint can be the occasion of witnessing God’s power. After the death of the prophet Elisha, the people of Israel were under attack from the Moabites. It happened that “once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet” (2 Kings 13:20-21).
Physical proximity to the saints when alive and to their tombs after death is a way of touching the very ones in whose lives the holiness and power of God had been at work. A fifth-century inscription at the tomb of Martin of Tours (d. 397) reads, “Here lies bishop Martin of holy memory, whose soul is in the hand of God, but who is completely present here, manifesting through the power of miracles his every grace.” For those who could not travel to be physically present to the saint, another way was found to touch the holy person. Some relic of the saint was taken to the faithful as a way of being in touch with the saint.
This practice of making relics available to the faithful did not develop out of a belief that there is some inherent power in a relic or in an object touched to the holy person. Not at all! Rather, touching some relic of the saint is a visible, tangible expression of the belief in the power of God who is not confined to the limits of this world. God had worked through the saint in his or her life on earth. God continues to work not only through the good example that the saint has left behind on earth, but also in response to their intercessory prayers in heaven. Although the saint is already in heaven, his or her body here on earth somehow, in a quasi-sacramental way, puts us in touch with the saint and joins heaven and earth.
To be continued