Spoken in a Touch


A touch can speak beyond words. Many times in the hospital, a patient or family member will grab my hand and hold on so tightly that I know it isn’t really me they’re holding on to in that moment. A spinal cord injury patient who was paralyzed from the neck down always insisted that I hold his hand while I prayed with him, and I wondered why, when he couldn’t even feel it. During some visits, when there is nothing to be said, I will place my hand on someone’s shoulder, or rub calming circles on his back as he is bent with weeping. Sometimes this is still scary to me, and my touch is tentative, uncertain of the recipient’s response. A few times I have felt the person stiffen, or shrug away my hand, and I immediately retract it. But most of the time, the touch is welcomed for what it is — a means of connection.

The Ash Wednesday service that ushers many Christians into the season of Lent is one of the most somber of the year, but I love it. I know there are words spoken, prayers, readings from scripture, but the imposition of ashes is what I always remember. That moment when the minister touches my forehead, his or her thumb rubbing a cross of ashes on my skin, is powerful. The spoken words are usually, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” but the touch says more. “I am here with you. You are not alone. We are all in this together. Every one of us is in need of forgiveness. Every one of us is a fragile creature prone to fail and one day die. But we have a God who reaches out to us, who does not turn away from our flawed and fragile state. As surely as I touch you with these ashes, God longs to touch you with the forgiveness and love you need.” I hear it all in that touch, and for a few seconds, all the other voices are silenced.

I desperately need those times when I can only hear one voice, one that speaks truth. The distracting voices in my life are legion. Part of my Lenten discipline this year will be creating more space for one voice, and I have thought of a few ways of doing that. There are some great lists of suggestions out there, if you’re looking for ideas, like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one. It will be hard, but my hope is that it will help me reconnect with God and with others, to get outside myself and recognize my own finitude, my relative place in the universe. So if you know me, if you see me looking scattered or overwhelmed these next few weeks, could you do me a favor? If you can, just place a gentle hand on my arm. That moment of touch may be enough to bring me back to center, to speak the truth I need even better than your words could.

How about you? What are you hoping for in this Lenten season, if that is part of your spiritual practice?

7 thoughts on “Spoken in a Touch

    1. He was one of my favorite patients, Karen! A great kid, 19 years old, paralyzed in a car accident. It was during my CPE residency and he taught me so much. He was in our ICU for months, so I was able to develop a relationship with him over time. At first he had a trach, so communicating was very difficult, but he was insistent about me holding his hand. I learned, eventually, that in his faith tradition, they always held hands during prayer time, so it didn’t seem like “real” prayer to him unless someone was holding his hand. I would always place my other hand on his head, where he could feel it. I enjoyed visiting with him very much, and actually got to see him once more after he had completed his rehab and came back to the hospital for a visit. He was doing very well. One of the things we worked on was developing new dreams and goals that he could accomplish after his injury, and that was really powerful for him. Music was one of his talents, and when he came back to visit, he let me listen to a demo he had recorded after he left the rehab hospital. I was very proud of him.

      1. Re: “real prayer”: touch is literal connection between beings, and so I see this as a lesson about healing, comforting or loving connection as an essential ingredient to genuine prayer.

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