On a breezy, warmer-than-normal fall night two weeks ago, I found myself on a bar patio surrounded by twenty-somethings sucking face. These weren’t quick pecks shared by whispering couples. This was real-deal making out in public. One couple even garnered applause from nearby observers for the vigor of their kisses. Needless to say, I (the celibate Jesuit) was not an active participant. More like an awkward observer.
I wasn’t trying to be a creep by noticing, but I didn’t want to be prudish either. I’m not opposed to the wonderful world of PDA; I cherish a couple strolling hand-in-hand and I smile when I see students awkwardly embrace before class. Public displays of affection are like love out loud and that, I think, is a good thing.
But, in our world of Tinder and Grindr (popular hook-up apps), it’s not hard to find someone to hold — it might even be a little reckless, and knowing what I know about being a twenty-something (full disclosure: I’m 32), I appreciate how there are times when any touch will do. As a Jesuit though, I’ve given up that instant (if we’re honest, somehow satisfying) gratification, and these kissing couples made me feel isolated and alone; I was starkly reminded of my vowed chastity. All around me there was immediate and intimate embrace, and I wasn’t involved. I was in a place with lots of touching, and I remained untouched.
As a Jesuit novice, I visited a day-program for adults living with AIDS. On Thursdays, a massage therapist would attend to the clients; I remember watching folks go into a room with the therapist, hunched, slow-moving, pained expressions on their faces. The illness had a grip on them, and each moment was a fight. They would come out just ten minutes later transformed–standing straighter, moving more lightly, a full, wide and beaming smile to warm the room. I mentioned this transformation to a nurse nearby, and with a kind look of understanding she explained–for many of these people, their ten-minute massage is the only time during the week that they are truly, lovingly touched.
When most of the world sees the other as untouchable, everything else about them becomes invisible. Sick with AIDS or Ebola, homeless or hungry, a different skin color, sexual orientation, or creed — when someone chooses actively not to reach out and touch someone else, the distance between them grows, and it’s not the growing fonder type of distance. The gap is bridged by the very worst of this world — obliviousness, anxiety, shame, fear, and hate. Forget the actual medical benefit of massage. To be touched is a remedy. Every one of us can touch and be touched. We’re all healers, and we’re all in need of healing.
It struck me once me during a retreat that Jesus couldn’t keep his hands off people. Perhaps it’s a simple, obvious point, but still–he’s right in there touching everyone, spitting to make mud and smearing it over their eyes, sticking his fingers into their ears (a divine wet willy). And what happens when he touches them? The mute begin speaking, the deformed become whole, the lame are afoot, the lost are found. And his touch is reciprocated — Simon hoists him up after he’s fallen, Veronica wipes his face clean, and Mary cradles his broken body.
I’ve had my last first kiss and I now sleep alone in a twin bed, because, as an older Jesuit once quipped, big beds shouldn’t be half cold. But if for a moment I think that this means I’m alone and without embrace, then I’m forgetting the power of my touch and the strength of my desire. There is a truth at the heart of this whole mess: my touch is a response to desire, and my desire comes out of love. In love there is longing. When we love we want.
I want to encourage friends – who may be nervous about first encounters with the homeless – to share the experience of a cold sidewalk. I want to help people understand consent, and what it means to be in a healthy partnership. I want to dance my butt off at weddings, and I want to give the best damn bear hugs around. I want to invent a handshake with a kid who never had a dad to hug him. I want to wipe tears from the faces of my godchildren when they fall and skin their knees.
In bars and hospital beds, in small towns and big cities, we all want to be touched. This desire is a gift, because it is rooted in our capacity to know God and to fall in love. I want to let myself be carried when I’m exhausted and I want to collapse into the arms of those who have loved me. In all things I want to love and serve. To touch and and to be touched.
– // –