Touch and intimacy – some reflections from my hospital placement

Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) 'How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news." Isaiah 52:7
Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (previously Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” Isaiah 52:7

Earlier in the year, part of my ordination training, included a placement with the Chaplains at my local hospital with a couple of days also spent at our local hospice. What follows is an edit of the presentation I made recently of what my experiences got me thinking about:

Now; I’m married to a secondary school teacher, and in the past I have served time as my church’s Child Protection Officer. In both contexts, we are very aware touching people too much, or inappropriately is ‘not a good thing’.

This probably explains my surprise at the emphasis on touch, particularly on my visits to the Hospice, but also observed in my experiences on the hospital wards. I was in fact told by the hospice chaplain that “communication needs to be intimate even if the patient has lost all power of speech,” and that the touch of a Chaplain “is similar, but quite different, to the touch of medical staff.”

It’s probably obvious I am using ‘touch’ to refer to the act of making physical contact with something, in this case another person. ‘Intimacy’ has probably had it’s definition damaged by the overlay of centuries of sexual imagery, but in this context I am referring to it as the human desire to offer and receive the care and closeness of human companions, such as that Jesus sought from his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemene.

Watching the hospice chaplains at work, whether during sacraments or simply talking or praying with a patient, there was a lot of touching going on:

  • As one patient was anointed in her dying hours, the daughter was held gently but firmly about the shoulders by the other chaplain;
  • I was aware of the tenderness required in holding the service sheet so that a respite patient could say the words of the Holy Communion service, and in the gentleness of the chaplain as she anointed his head and his hands – both intimate acts.

At the hospital, movement around and towards a patient felt far more restricted and constricted by the proximity of equipment and medical staff:

  • The table, a medical line and stand meant I couldn’t easily sit alongside one patient to talk in a friendly fashion – when she expressed eagerness for me to pray for her I was unable to get close enough to even put my hand on her shoulder: I felt inhibited in my fulfilment of her request;
  • As I moved to administer Holy Communion one Sunday morning, a nurse grumbled from behind the curtain of the neighbouring patient, pointing out that my physical presence too close to her was why visitors weren’t welcome on wards in the mornings!

My own natural responses were divided:

  • I am by nature a fairly touchy-feely person: I know that part of the way I relate to people is through touch – I naturally want to offer gestures of comfort and care;
  • Yet, I find it difficult to look at people when talking to them: my husband spent many years of our early relationship trying to stop me making an in-depth study of his ears when talking to him! In some situations I still back-slide;
  • My experiences on placement, reminded me of my mother’s final days, of finding repellent the idea of massaging her swollen feet, or feeding her yoghurt she could barely swallow, and yet being glad to manage both as the situation demanded the roles of mother and daughter be reversed.

So I was left dwelling on the hows’ and whens’ of touch in a pastoral context, and whether it is in fact a problem when our own repulsion, or the apparatus of care, dis-able such a physically intimate response. Most particularly, I found myself asking the question, what did Jesus do?

Though Jesus doesn’t always touch those to whom he brings healing, he reaches out his hands

  • to touch a leper and break the religious and social taboos (Matthew 8:2)
  • to raise up Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:15)
  • to anoint with dust and spittle, the man born blind (John 9:6-7)

If Jesus doesn’t use touch, he certainly gains a swift and intimate understanding of those he meets

  • In the Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15) before Jesus heals, he sees and learns about the man’s condition and it’s duration, and then tests his psychological state by asking the question ‘Do you want to get well?’
  • There is discernment and healing of a different sort offered in the forgiveness given the women with the alabaster jar and the simultaneous challenge given to Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50.

Of course, the Bible also gives us examples of those who reached out to touch Jesus:

  • At birth Mary took the child she had given birth to, wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger (Luke 2:7) – the Mother, ignoring her own post-natal needs in grim conditions to tenderly provide warmth, and protection to her helpless child;
  • When the beloved disciple leans back against Christ at the Last Supper to ask who will betray him (John 13:25) is that the last time Jesus is touched, without betrayal, ridicule, and torture?
  • Some like to depict a grieving Mary holding her sons body when it is taken from the cross. What the Gospel does tell us it is that Joseph of Arimathea takes Jesus’ body, wraps it in a clean linen shroud and lays it in a new tomb (Matthew 27:59) – like a mortuary attendant respectfully caring for a victim of crime; like a loved one taking the hand of a dead partner, making the fact of their death, a reality;
  • Then there is Thomas, who having not seen, needed touch to enable to proclaim the divinity of his risen Lord (John 20:19-29)

If we understand ourselves to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and we apply St. Paul’s teaching that Christ was made in the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4), then then such intimacy makes us more fully Christ-like.

This theology tells us that the object we look at as an individual human, becomes the relational being we describe as a person, through our interaction with them: our intimacy with them gives them their person-hood. Intimacy of look, focus, concentration, conversation, gesture, prayer AND touch make them, and importantly us, more fully human. The more of these types of intimacy we are able to offer, the better able to fulfil our God-given task.

In a book by therapist Brian Thorne called “Infinitely Beloved” it is emphasised that an environment of trust and such person-centred intimacy “offer[s] a psychological and emotional climate in which pain can be faced and transcended” and self acceptance gained, enabling the patient to be more responsive to their own needs, as well as that of others.

And, when I worry about my own inadequacies and hang-ups, and the constraints of the physical and social environment in which we often have to minister, I know I also have to remember that God has so much more to offer, and will not be forestalled! As I venture stumbling steps to fulfil my potential to love as God loves, I too have to trust him to dwell within practitioner and patient alike “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” and not simply “according to his power that (we are aware) is at work within us”, but to his boundless and “infinite glory, and to all generations”! (ff. Ephesians 3:20-21)

To conclude my presentation I asked my group of fellow ordinands to stand,  to take a minutes silence while standing alone in which we each prayed for the two people standing nearest to us, and then, whatever our normal practice, to join hands and look at each other, trying to catch each others eyes as we prayed THE GRACE over each other.

Questions for discussion:

1. Does look and touch change our experience of prayer, both as practitioner and as recipient?

2. From our own experience and ministry, can we offer ourselves some guidelines regarding our use of touch?


One comment

  1. The right kind of touch, in the right place and at the right time, can be healing. The wrong kind can be utterly destructive, particularly if offered in the context of pastoral ministry. And the witholding of touch from some whilst visibly offering it to others can also be destructive.
    I found this post very thought-provoking. Thank you.


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