When we are praying in silence in our favourite place, we fathom reality around us. We remember what we have seen and probe it deeply. We recall the sounds we have heard and listen to what they reveal. Then the time comes to reach out with great sensitivity.
Sensitivity means 'the ability to feel'. Sensitivity relates to our skin and the way we can touch. There is an intimate connection between our sense of touch and other forms of sensitivity.
It is not without reason that we call some people 'touchy' and others 'thick-skinned'.
When in our prayer we have reached our stage of 'touching', we begin by feeling what has happened to things, to ourselves and to people. Just like in the case of our 'seeing' and 'hearing', here too our reflection in prayer and our actions during the day mutually influence each other.
In our culture, touch is often neglected and we may need to rediscover it.
Become aware of your 'feelings'
Monitoring our bodily feelings is an ancient skill that we should have developed naturally.
We have to become more consciously aware of how our body is part of our relating to objects and people around us.
Let us take note of whatever touches our skin: the feel of our clothes, fresh air on our face, the hard surface on which we sit perhaps, the squeeze of a shoe on our foot. It makes us aware of our being skin all over with the ability to feel.
We call our emotions feelings because our inner experiences affect our body. When we encounter a shock, our face turns pale and we begin to perspire all over. When we are happy we feel warm. Shame makes us blush. A fright may give us goose pimples.
Expectation makes our heart beat faster. Anxiety knots our stomach and grips our throat. Being aware of our feelings, listening to what our body is telling us is no luxury. It is vital.
What is our body saying to us now?
Why do we feel the way we do?
If there are problems, we should face up to them. We may be in need of healing and we may want to express this in a prayer of desire.
We have no rational control over our feelings. We cannot command them at will, ordering them to go away or to change mood. All we can do is channel them properly.
If they are hurtful feelings, or feelings which are misdirected (such as scruples, unnecessary anxieties, jealousies, suspicions), we can change them gradually through diplomatic control. We begin by owning up to these feelings. Then we consciously reject their validity. Next we decide we can safely ignore them, even though we may continue to feel them. And we turn our attention to other things. In this way negative feelings will gradually make way for more positive feelings.
Having identified the feelings in ourselves and what we think they mean, we pass on. We will not find happiness or the solution to our problems by remaining inward looking.
Touch is the oldest and most intimate sense we have of relating to Reality outside us. It is here that we can learn gentleness and tenderness.
Let us remember objects we have felt. If we find it difficult to recall the memory, it might be good to spend some time actually sampling different surfaces.
Let your finger tips slide over a woolly blanket, a smooth window pane, the hairs of a tooth brush, the rough edges of unpolished wood, the shell of an exotic fruit.
In my prayer I remember perhaps the chill of a glass of Coca Cola that I cradled in my hand earlier that day.
The palm of my hand could hardly bear the feel of its icy coldness.
What does it tell me?
I realise how much we depend on the right measure of heat. The range is narrow. Too hot and we burn. Too cold and we freeze. We are only able to live on our planet because it is at the right distance from the sun.
Another association springs to mind: it is the variation of warm and cold that pleases our palate. Is this also true of relationships?
After we have sensitivised ourselves to touching objects, we should turn to living beings. Let us gently feel the leaves and stems of plants, the bark of a tree. Hold the silky petal of a rose between our thumb and forefinger. Allow your hand to caress the furry coat of a cat, the feathers of a starling or the hairy flanks of a horse. Notice the pulse of life, the warmth that exudes, the inner movements that show the creature is alive.
But what about touching other human beings?
The healing power of touch
Our culture severely restricts the free expression of touch. But we know how important it is. During the first months of our life touch was the way we communicated easiest with our surroundings. The loving touches of our mother created in us the ability to love and to be loved.
This is how we touch others in our prayer.
Touching follows naturally on our seeing and hearing. First, we remember other people. This is, in our mind's eye, we remember seeing them and recall hearing their cry. Then we are spontaneously moved to reach out and touch them.
Through our touch we can affirm, heal, build up, encourage.
If we have come across a person who needs our help, we bless that person in our heart. We move out to him or her in sympathy and with the desire to give support. We reflect on how we can give substance to our desire. If we recognise a way we can do so, we decide how and when we are going to implement it .
If we have hurt someone or have been hurt ourselves, we move closer to that person in our prayer. We feel the vibrations from our previous encounter with her or him.
Perhaps there are things we have done or said that we feel sorry about. Perhaps there are things we need to forgive. In our prayer we touch the person to begin the process of reconciliation. And we determine how best we can bring it about in fact.
There are people whom we may never be able to touch physically, because they live far from us or because established custom forbids us to touch them.
But we can touch people in a myriad other ways: by speaking a kind word, by writing a letter, by talking over the telephone, by sending a donation, or by supporting their cause. Through such actions our loving and blessing of people in our thoughts can mak a genuine difference to the way we relate.
My skin tingles
Joe Whittaker, 'Odes to Spring'
What you should do
You now expand your inner prayer to even wider dimensions.
You may find that a quarter of an hour is not enough to do justice to the images, the sounds, the cries, the responses that are welling up in your heart . . .
For the video clip from "The Seven Circles of Prayer" we obtained permission from the copyright owner Housetop. The text was taken from "Stepping into the Seven Circles of Prayer" by John Wijngaards who is also the author of this course; illustrations are by Alison Conti.