The Touch of Tenderness
Of all our human experiences love is the strangest and the most beautiful of all. On the one hand it is so much part of our flesh and skin, of our bodily feelings. Yet it touches at the same time our deepest self, the inmost centre of our spirit.
What is the nature of love? What is specifically human about it? Why does it make sense to be unselfish?
In this text we reflect on sensitivity. Have we discovered the deepest meaning of God being Love? Can we touch? Do we allow ourselves to be touched?
How Linda recovered her Life
If you are a priest, people at times tell you things you would not hear otherwise. The following story was narrated to me by a lady who happened to sit next to me on a Green Coach journey. It is as true as it is extraordinary. I am re-telling it because I believe that others might benefit from the experience. I will tell it the way she told me.
“After I had been married for sixteen years, I got a divorce. We had three children at the time: a boy of ten and two daughters of twelve and thirteen. The last years of our marriage were catastrophic. In the end my relatives had to intervene and almost separate us physically. I had begun to fear and hate my husband so much that every evening I hoped that he would have an accident on the way back home from work.
ENTERING THE TUNNEL
After the divorce I first felt an immense relief. But then things began to change. Friends and relatives took little interest in me. I began to feel lonely and deserted in the new place I had moved to. I became frustrated and despondent. It was like forever sinking deeper into a dark well. I took medicine, but it did not cure me of my depression. I came to the conclusion that I had nothing to live for. I decided to take the consequences and to make an end to it all.
I had completely lost all sense of feeling, for, although I did love my children, their presence did not seem to make any difference. I planned my departure in a cold and detached manner. I waited till it would be Friday, because on Fridays my children had music class after school so that they would come home later than usual. I saw them off to school as on other days, I put some money and a message on the kitchen table to tell them that I was ill, that they had better go out for supper and buy themselves fish and chips. Then I went to my bedroom, undressed and stretched out on my bed, holding in my hand the bottle of amphetamines I intended to swallow. I felt nothing just emptiness.
At that moment the door opened and my thirteen year old daughter came in. Returning because she had forgotten something. She had read the notice on the kitchen table.
‘Mummy’, she said, ‘You look ill!’
And she embraced me lovingly with tears in her eyes. That simple, tender touch did more to me than anything I have ever experienced. It was as if I woke up from a dream. Until that time God had not meant anything to me. But suddenly the thought came to my mind. What am I complaining about? God has given me three miracles of love. I have something to live for! In one stroke I was back on the way to sanity of mind and to a desire to know more about God.
The wonder of the human skin
When you read Linda’s story, you must have been struck by the fact that she only came to her senses when her daughter touched her. Her children had been there all the time. It needed the touch of human skin to make her re-discover concern and love.
The skin is one of our most intriguing organs. Scientists tell us that our body is covered by thousands of small receptors that can sense cold, heat, contact or pain. Just imagine the complexity of the organisation! Every square inch of our skin has an average of three hundred receptors. Each of these is connected separately, via long and sensitive nerves, to the touch centres in our brain. At the top of the brain stem six hundred thousand of such nerves enter the brain cavity, to fan out in different directions to their awareness points in the cerebrum. The end result is that we are in communication with every part of our skin all the time.
The skin has many functions. It is waterproof and keeps infections out. It regulates our body temperature. It protects us from knocks and blows. But it also has an important psychological task. It is a well known fact that young children who have not been stroked and caressed during the first days and months of their life, will retain feelings of unhappiness throughout their lives. When entering into this world a human being needs to be cuddled to acquire a basic sense of security and well beinq.
We can even go a step further. From our own intimate experiences we know how closely our skin is linked to our deepest emotions. We blush when we feel embarrassed. We become pale, we tremble or feel cold sweat when we are afraid. We glow with satisfaction and happiness when our heart rejoices. Human feeling has both a bodily and a psychological component. As can be seen also in all expressions of human love.
THE PRIMACY OF LOVE
There is only one religion in the world which states un-equivocally that God is love and that the first and main commandment is love. That religion is Christianity and Jesus .Christ was its founder. No other teacher of love has had such a profound influence on human history as he had. For him tenderness and love came first. Here are some of his teachings.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Matthew 22, 37-39
Love your enemies,
Do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you,
Pray for those who ill-treat you!
Luke 6, 27-29
Now I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love or each other, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.
John 13, 34-35
My commandment is this: Love one another just as I love you. The greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them. This then is what I command you: love one another.
One of the unspoken principles ruling many of our relationships is what sociologists have called the law of Equal Exchange. This means that for everything we receive from someone else we have to give an equivalent in return. The economics of buying and selling, of labour and wage, of bonuses and fines is based on this. So are our social obligations of compensating for damage caused by givina favours in return for favours received. We support our families because they support us. We are friendly to our friends because they are good to us. This kind of conduct, which is so firmly embedded in our consciousness, is almost like an instinct. No doubt, it evolved to help us stabilize our relationships, much the way this is done in the animal world
Jesus teaches that for our love to be truly human, it should transcend self-interest and the law of equal exchange. By giving that kind of love we give something freely — almost the way God gives when he/she creates out of pure generosity. Unselfish love originates from God.
If you love only the people who love you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners love those who Iove them!
And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners do that!
And if you lend only to those from whom you hope to get it back, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount!
No! Love your enemies and do good to them; lend and expect nothing back. You will then have a great reward, and you will be the children of the most high God. For he is good to the ungrateful and the wicked.
‘Be merciful just as your father is merciful.
A new yardstick in relationships
For the Jews of Jesus’ time worshipping God in the Temple was the most solemn duty a person could have. Every Jew would go to Jerusalem at least once a year to bring his sacrifice to the Temple. But Jesus Christ taught that friendship and reconciliation are more important. He said:
If you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has some thing against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God. Matthew 5,23-24
In other words: God can wait. What is important above all is to make sure to maintain good relationships with the people you know.
Again, the Jews attached great importance to the Sabbath law. This meant that no-one was allowed to do any work on that day because it was a day consecrated to God. Jesus consistently refused to let the so-called sacredness of the Sabbath stand in the way of his service to people. In spite of the opposition of the religious leaders of his day, he cured a woman with a bent back on the Sabbath. He did so in the middle of the Synagogue, the house of prayer. “Let her come back tomorrow”, the president said. “No”, said Jesus. “I’ll cure her now. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.
No less revolutionary was Jesus’ concern and respect for prostitutes. As in our own days, these were completely written off by all so-called respectable people. But Jesus saw them as persons. He knew many of them were good people in many respects. “Prostitutes and tax collectors will precede you into the Kingdom of Heaven”, he told the Pharisees. And when a prostitute approached him with confidence, Jesus responded with tenderness.
A Pharisee invited Jesus to have dinner with him and Jesus went to his house and sat down to eat. In that town was a woman who lived a sinful life. She had heard that jesus was eating in he Pharisee’s house, so she brought an alabaster jar full of perfume and stood behind jesus, by his feet, crying and wetting his feet with her tears. Then she dried his feet on her hair, kissed them and poured the perfume on them. When the Pharisee saw this he said to himself, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him; he would know what kind of sinful life she leads!”
Jesus spoke up and said to him: “Simon, I have something to tell you”.
“Right,teacher”, he said, “tell me”.
“There were two men who owed money to a moneylender”, Jesus began. “One owed him 500 silver coins, and the other one 50. Neither of them could pay him back so he cancelled the debts of both. Which one, then, will love him more?”
“I suppose”, answered Simon, “that it would be the one who was forgiven more”.
“You are right”, Jesus said. The he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your home, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You did not welcome me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing my feet since I came. You provided no oil for my head, but she has covered my feet with perfume. I tell you, then, the great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven. But whoever has been forgiven little show only a little love”.
Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven”. Luke 7,36-48
Not only did Jesus repay her confident touch with great sensitivity, he gave her the great compliment of being a peson who has ‘loved much’. Even though she has sinned, Jesus said she would be forgiven because she was a person capable of true love. The repentant prostitute being a person who has ‘loved much’.
Nothing human is foreign to me
Once a Samaritan village refused to give hospitality to Jesus and his disciples.The Samaritans and Jews were hostile to one another both for religious and social reasons.It frequently came to bloody conflicts . We know from contemporary sources that not long after Jesus’ death a party of Gallileans were murdered in a Samaritan village where they were trying to find hospitality on their way to the Passover feast in Jerusalem. The Jews took terrible revenge. They sent a raiding band into Samaria who killed men, women and children and burnt down many villages. Jesus’ disciples wanted to curse the inhospitable village, but Jesus rebuked them, “I don’t know what spirit you have”, he said. In fact, when he wanted to describe the image of a really loving person, he deliberately made him a Samaritan.
There was once a man who was going down to Jerusalem when robbers attacked him, stripped him and beat him up, leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down the road, but when he saw the man, he walked on by, on the other side. In the same way a Levite also came along, went over and looked at the man, and then walked on by, on the other side. But a Samaritan who was travelling that way came upon the man, and when he saw him, his heart was filled with pity. He went over to him, poured oil and water on his wounds and bandaged them; then he put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Take care of him”, he told the innkeeper, “and when I come back this way, I will pay you whatever else you you spend on him.” Luke 10. 30-35
Love in war
It was 1916 in Flanders. We had tried to over-run the enemy lines, but failed. I was left behind with a bleeding head and a crushed knee. My mate Bill lay fifteen feet away from me, whimpering with pain. There was nothing I could do for him.
Suddenly a German officer approached us. He saw Bill, knelt down and offered him a drink from his water bottle.
Bill looked at him with feverish eyes and said: “Mother, are you here?”
The officer bent over him and, as in response, gently stroked his forehead, smoothing away his straggling hair.
A smile came on Bill’s face and he visibly relaxed. He looked at the German once more, whispered, “Mother!” and slumped back. I realised that he had died. The German stretched out his hand once more and tenderly closed his eyes. Then he made a sign of the cross. When he turned to me, I could see he had tears in his eyes.
From War Memories, by A. Koch, Brand, Hilversum 1960, p. 671.
I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your home, naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me …. Whatever you have done to the least of mine, you have done for me. Matthew 25,35-36.40
God is LOVE
Love, the self-transcending gift of ourself, makes us truly happy and fulfills our life. Jesus indicates the ultimate reasons for this: God himself, the source and ground of all existence is love.
This means that in spite of the suffering, darkness and confusion we see in this world, goodness and happiness are its real purpose.
We can understand this to some extent with our own limited human thinking. Darkness is not evil in itself; only the absence of light. The death of certain plants and animals supports the life of other plants and animals. The existence of free will includes, of necessity, the possibility of selfishness and violence; but only to make the free gift of love a reality.
What is important to realise is that underlying everything that happens, there is a purpose that is not evil, a power that is not malicious. That is the liberating message Jesus preaches God is light. There is in him no shade of darkness (1 John 1,5).
I have seen a lot of suffering. I have picked up many dying people from the streets of Calcutta, some lepers, some covered with wounds, some so emaciated with hunger that they could no more eat. But what all of them needed most was the gift of love.
I remember the old woman in the last stages of TB. She had fever, she was hungry, she coughed with pain. But the one thing she kept telling me, the one thing that really upset her, was: My son left me. Why is he not with me? The deepest wound she carried was the wound in her love. I brought her to our home, I gave her a bed, and medicine and food. But the healing she needed most was the healing of that wound. When she died, in my arms, a few days afterwards, she was still speaking of her son. What made me really happy was that she told me: “I still love him. I forgive him”.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta, address to a Convention, April 1984
Let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. And God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him . . .
No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in union with us, and his love is made perfect in us. 1 John 4,7-9.12
The death that brings life
Jesus’ message of love brought him in serious conflict with the authorities. When he saw that they had decided to eliminate himself, he did not draw back but decided to accept his death to bring life to others.
I am the good shepherd who is willing to die for the sheep. The hired man runs away because he is only a hired man and does not care about the sheep. I am willing to die for them. John 1 1,13-14
I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains. Whoever loves his own life, will lose it; whoever hates his own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. John 12,24-25
On the evening before his death Jesus instituted the eucharistic meal as a lasting remembrance of his death and final victory. For Christians, Jesus’ death, however terrible an event in itself, has become a symbol of God’s forgiveness and love. In Jesus God was present in a very special way: in him God not only put on our human nature in an unspeakable way; he also accepted our human condition unto the point of death. Through this suffering and death have received a totally new meaning.
If God is for us, who can be against us?
Certainly not God, who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all!
He gave us his Son – wilI he not also freely give us all things? ….
Who will condemn God’s chosen people?
Not Christ Jesus, who died for us, or rather, who was raised to life and is at the right-hand side of God, pleading with him for us!..
No, in all things we have complete victory through him who loved us.
I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below. Romans 8,31-39
Once more: love during the war
On July 31st 1941 at Auschwitz the prisoners of an entire block stood on the camp street all day tortured by sun, hunger and fear. They knew one of them had escaped and the Nazis had announced retaliation. Ten of them were going to be killed. At seven o’clock in the evening, the camp commander Karol Fritzsch and police official Gerhard Palitzsch came to end the ordeal. Ten men would be taken to die in the starvation bunker.
Fritzsch and the SS guards walked along one line of prisoners and chose one man for the bunker. This line then moved ten steps forward and the Nazis chose a man from the next line and so on. When Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish sergeant, was singled out he shouted in despair, “My poor wife and children!” At that moment a slight figure stepped out of line, took off his cap and moved with halting gait to stand at attention before the SS. He had a flushed face, sunken eyes and cheeks and wore round glasses in wire frames. Prisoners craned to see, because though forlorn cries were common, no one had ever dared to break rank. It was probably because it was something incomprehensible that the man was not shot where he stood.
Fritzsch, who had never before had conversation with a prisoner, asked “What does this Polish pig want? Who are you?”
The man replied, “I am a Catholic priest. I want to die for that man; I am old; he has a wife and children.” The priest gave a shrewd answer which took account of the German’s philosophy, to liquidate as priority the old and the weak. Fritzsch signalled Sergeant Gajowniczek to return to his place in the line and Palitzsch, without a sign of emotion, changed the numbers on his list …..
The ten condemned men were driven into the bunker naked and humiliated and afraid. After fourteen days the SS guards found four of them were still alive, of whom the priest alone was conscious. He was executed on the spot. His name was Maximilian Kolbe. He was forty-seven vears old when he died.
Excerpted from: Saint of Auschwitz by Diana Dewar, London, 1982.
Learning a new touch
There is an intimate connection between our sense of touch and spiritual sensitivity. Psychologically we cannot keep the two apart. It is not without reason that people speak of persons who are ‘touchy’ or ‘thick-skinned’. To become more sensitive to love we should start with our body. Here are some approaches we might want to explore.
* We might begin by concentrating on the feel of things. Let us take note of whatever touches our skin: the pressure of the shoe on our foot, the feel of our clothes, fresh air on our face, the flow of water on our body when we take a shower. With our finger tips we sample various surfaces: a woolly blanket, a smooth window pane, a lumpy piece of earthenware. We touch these objects deliberately, as when we were babies, to register their feeling and so discover reality.
* After having sensitised ourselves in this way — and we will be surprised at how the experience affects us-, we turn to living beings. Gently we feel the leaves and stems of plants, the bark of a tree. We allow our hands to carress a cat, a dog or the flanks of a horse. We notice the pulse of life, the warmth that exudes, the inner movements that make the creature alive.
* We may now be ready to focus attention on human beings. Our culture severely limits the free expression of touch but with some we are familiar. What does a handshake mean to us? What do we feel when we kiss or hug? Are we aware of the looks, words or gestures we use to substitute for bodily contact, and how these affect others? Do we feel how other people ‘stroke us’ or ‘hit us’? How much love and tenderness is there in our ‘contacts’ with other persons?
* Finally, we may want to reflect on the kind of person we feel we are. Do we feel loved? Why? Does giving love and tenderness make us happy? What does it tell us about our world and the way we know God?
My skin tingles
with the glow
of your touch.
I feel it stir
of my being
as the hand of God
Your trusting embrace
from the deep seated
It’s God in you
who kisses me
who releases in me
a new power
Your face on my face
your lips on mine
my body enfolded
by the curves
of your limbs.
As we melt
to be one
I seek with you
to have part
Poem by John Wijngaards