Reading my daily devotional guide, “The Upper Room Disciplines,” for last Tuesday, October 20, I found myself considering the special blessing that is contained in touch. The devotional writer, Marilyn McEntyre, an author and professor of English, referenced Wendell Berry’s story, “Pray without Ceasing,” which begins with Berry’s memory of how his grandfather would sit next to him and “clap him lightly on the leg.” McEntyre continues: “The shape of the old man’s hand remains with him [Berry] ‘as vividly as a birthmark.’ ‘This man who was my grandfather is present in me.’ (pg. 353)”
I come from a very tactile family, my mother being the best example. Known as “Bunnie,” she would freely welcome others into her arms for what became known affectionately as “Bunnie hugs.” Growing up, I can remember kissing often and hugging with intent. There was a warmth inherent in the free exchange of touching that reinforced the love our family members had for one another. Even as a teenager I was not averse to giving my father a kiss on the cheek now and then.
But the coronavirus has ricocheted all of that out of our lives and into the unreachable outer edges of society. With the exception of immediate family members, we are missing out on the hugging and kissing we took for granted during such times as the “passing of the peace” in church, or even the casual greetings we might exchange with someone we knew well enough to do so when we met in the grocery store. Elbow-bumping doesn’t cut it for those of us who treasure the blessings of touch.
McEntyre ventures into the theological arena of “laying on of hands,” an ancient practice in which the authority of one person (a bishop, a pastor, etc.) is called upon to impart a blessing by placing his or her hands on the head of a (usually kneeling) recipient. When pastoral candidates are ordained in the United Methodist Church the bishop engages in sacred touch by the laying on of hands. When the local church that my family and I attend sets a Sunday aside as Healing Sunday, persons seeking healing in any form are invited to approach the altar rail where the pastor anoints their foreheads and places his hands on their heads – again, the laying on of hands.
We always took that for granted.
And for this season of COVID-19, we are forbidden to practice it.
“While not all touch is healthy, sacred touch imparts blessing and has power,” writes McEntyre.
It appears that the virus is finding very subtle ways to keep us apart.
I know that the lead time for the “Upper Room Disciplines” is long. My volume for 2021 arrived last month and doesn’t start until January. So my guess is that McEntyre wrote her thoughts on the laying on of hands well before the coronavirus started its worldwide tour. But, how thought-provoking, isn’t it, to take her words and place them against the backdrop of our current protocols?
I joined an informal group made up of people who have pledged to pray The Lord’s Prayer every day as a way of expressing our commitment to combat the virus, united in doing the same thing on a regular basis, and believing that the power of prayer – even a prayer that has a structure rather than being extemporaneous – is essential in winning the fight. May the virus’ eradication come soon so we can resume the blessings of sacred touch once again.