Kirkepiscatoid

Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!


In the movie, “Inception,” each member of the “dream team” has a unique object—a small pocket size totem—that serves as a boundary marker between the real world and the various dream worlds they enter in their dream “assignments”--the presence of "touch" signifies the state of reality vs. the state of dreaming. Indeed, Leo DiCaprio’s small metal spinning top itself becomes a focal point of the movie. Little did I know that the next day at Sunday Eucharist that this would springboard in a whole new train of thought.

My priest associate and I have had many discussions regarding the power of touch as a form of ministry. In her “day job” as a regional Hospice Chaplain, she has described to me many times in situations where a Hospice patient is not looking for the presence of the Episcopal church, or any church for that matter, but merely a representative of God in human form—with one of the most powerful and tangible representations of that form residing in the hands of the clergy. I also recall a time when one of my best friends in our parish was having a rough time with chemotherapy, and what she desired from all of us, lay or ordained, was simply our presence and a hand to hold as she received her chemo. But it was apparent to me that the touch of the clergy in this episode carried a different weight for her.

This power of the totem in the movie came back to my mind in the middle of Sunday worship. In her discussions with me, we have talked about how my postural preference when receiving the Sacrament is that I prefer not to look at the priest, but to be more attuned to the feel of the bread in my hand, and as I close my hands around it, to feel the presider’s fingers as they leave my hand and move on to the next person. It reminds me that in this moment, it is not the hands of “a priest” but the hands of God through the physical body of that priest, sharing the Body of Christ with me. On occasion, she has used this knowledge of how I see everyone's hands involved in that moment as a form of quiet blessing—sometimes, when she knows I’ve been under stress, after handing me the bread, she has placed her hand over my two closed hands. It’s a sign to me that without a single word being spoken, I am being prayed for at that moment.

Sometimes, I think we forget that embedded in our Book of Common Prayer is the use of touch as one of the facets of “the shamanic presence.” In many places in our various liturgies, priestly touch is an essential part of the liturgy—not just in the sharing of the bread at the Eucharist. It resides in the making of the sign of the Cross with chrism in Baptism or through healing by anointing, in the hand resting on the hand or head of the penitent in our rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, and in the hands of the Bishop at Confirmation. The hands of the Bishop on the head of the ordinand are a key component in ordination, and the hands of three bishops are just as key in the ordination of bishops. We are encouraged to mimic these forms of priestly touch in the sharing of the peace, and ordained and lay person alike can impose ashes on the heads of others on Ash Wednesday. So many of our liturgies display the power of priestly touch and teach the ministry of “God’s presence through touch to the laity.” Hopefully, it empowers people to use their own hands to silently spread the Gospel message.

But notice that in these settings, they are all accompanied by something that is a tactile reminder of Christ—his Body in the form of bread, the sign of the cross, the legacy of St. Peter. I believe these accompaniments are there in our Prayer Book by design. They are there to remind us that these are powers in which the ordained are only a conduit of the power of Christ, and NOT from the ordained person alone. It’s why we need to teach what these touches mean in the context of the liturgy. It’s why the laity needs to understand the meaning of priestly touch behind the context of the rubrics of our Prayer Book, and it needs to serve as a reminder to clergy: “This is about the rubrics of the Prayer Book. This is what touch in the liturgy means to laity. This is about the liturgy--it’s not about you.”

It’s also why we have rules in our Canons about sexual exploitation of adults and minors. Touch is one of our most hyperacute senses—even the profoundly unconscious respond to touch. When clergy blur the lines between the touch of the shaman—God’s conduit to be physically present in the liturgy and in pastoral settings—and the touch of an individual—it is inherently dangerous. It’s why the Episcopal Church has training in sexual exploitation of both minors and adults. Children innately want to experience Jesus in a physical way, and they are exceptionally vulnerable. Adults in stressful or crisis situations can have a lowering of the boundaries regarding touch, especially if the stress or crisis involves an intimate partner. Clergy who feel burned out, stressed out, and overworked can succumb to the feeling of their powers of touch as something belonging to them, and not to God—and unfortunately, predatory clergy know how to abuse these forms of touch for their own personal gain and their own sexual satisfaction.

Physical touch is one of the most sacred parts of our liturgy and one of the most tactile representations of God in pastoral care. We need to continue to educate laity and clergy alike on why it should never be profaned, and one of the most readily accessible means of education lives within the pages of our own Book of Common Prayer. Just as the little metal top grounded Leo DiCaprio in his journey between dreams and reality, so should our sense of touch in the liturgy and in the pastoral setting ground us between our world and God’s world.

4 comments:

Wonderful reflections! I know I sense the most profound connections AND vulnerability in the laying on of hands for healing. May God keep me ever aware that it is never about me.

Right you are, Paul. It was weird that going to see "Inception" is what put it all together for me. In my diocese, I'm licensed as Lay Preacher, Worship Leader, and Eucharistic Minister. I first realized a big dose of thie helping impose ashes on Ash Wednesday (if you go back in Feb., I had a post on this.) I realized when I knew I had this task, that I was thinking, "How would I want to be touched in the imposition of ashes so that I felt comforted by God despite these ashes represent the part of us that is dead to sin?"

I recognized that I was desiring to have people feel God, not "me." Ann and I had talked several times about various aspects of the "shamanic presence" in leading worship, inside and outside of my EfM class. It made me realize that worship leaders, lay or ordained, need to always be aware they are a stand-in, a pinch-hitter for the real thing.

Touch is the ultimate "prayer without words." Such a gift, when used correctly!

Thank you for this, Maria. I will never forget the power I felt in the touch of the bishop's hands upon my confirmation. And the touch of the priest's hands during the imposition of ashes always feels very, spiritually intimate. I have once felt the "power of hands" in my own hands -- this year, when I was allowed to impose ashes upon my priest's forehead.

On the other hand, you rightly point out the power of clergy to make an abomination of that power of touch.

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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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