(Team Navy/Coast Guard shaking hands with the Marine Corps after a game of wheelchair basketball held at the second annual Warrior Games, 2011, Olympic Training Center, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
"Touch is one of liturgy’s crucial, human building blocks. The restoration of The Peace to the liturgy almost forty years ago changed our church, but the work is not done. We’ve learned a great deal in the last thirty years about people’s fear of touch, about people for whom touch unleashes nightmares of real memories, of boundaries crossed, of bodies used, of selves made objects. Thinking of boundaries, thinking of people who can’t bear to be touched, thinking of people who abuse touch, I’ve moved from simple frustration at The Peace offered or received by someone whose body is angled away, left shoulder as remote as possible while the right arm is extended in a stiff, distancing handshake. I’ve become curious. I’m looking for grace and understanding in this event. I hope and pray it’s moving me to a new and wiser compassion. And I’m glad when it also moves us past a handshake to a hug."
--Donald Schell, "Touch is a loaded subject," from The Lead, June 16, 2011
What people do and don't do at the Peace says a lot more at church than what they say.
Likewise, how the sanctuary as a whole handles the Peace says a lot about who they are as a community.
How I've dealt with the Peace over many years tells a lot about my story.
When I was younger, I did not care much for the Peace. It was a phase of my life where I did not like to be particularly touched. Now, I do want to make it clear that I was never sexually abused. But it's no secret to my regular blog readers that I was physically abused. There was a period of my life where being touched was physically difficult for me, even warm or loving touches. It was because I knew that within the blink of an eye, a loving touch could turn ugly in a heartbeat. I did not like to physically be where I could not escape--even by people I mostly could trust. I didn't like the Peace because I couldn't trust people to simply shake my hand. They might want to hug me when I didn't want to be hugged. To this day, there is occasionally a holdover from this. I know I have hurt people's feelings when I am anxious or in my phase of "wanting to be alone" as I mull things over, by stiffening up when touched. They feel my shoulders stiffen under their hand and sometimes have thought they had "done something that I was giving them the cold shoulder." Then they feel hurt, and I feel sad that they feel hurt, and it's messy.
When I returned to the church, I returned to a parish that is for the most part, "warm and loving but not over-the-top demonstrable." It has mostly been about right. I have people who I shake hands with warmly, I have people that we exchange "two handed handshakes," I have people I hug, and one that we kiss cheeks, but that is because we've greeted that way for years, starting way before I ever came to Trinity.
I am still not crazy about hugging on the chancel when I am acolyte, but I've gotten better about that. I guess I don't particularly like hugging on the chancel b/c it sends some message that the people on the chancel get a special deal with each other for being more out front in the liturgy. The first time our new vicar hugged me on the chancel when I was acolyte, I know I stiffened up. I now realize, well, "sometimes she just does that," and it's okay. I think she just gets so full of the Peace of Christ and I happen to be the only other one up there. But it wasn't like I didn't have precedent. I remember a time when our priest associate gave a very poignant homily that was emotional for her for a lot of reasons. I hugged her, but it was a hug I offered, not one I got unexpectedly.
When I attend other churches, I kind of hang back to see what the "local custom" is in that parish. I try to more or less fit in with the custom, whether they are aisle-crossers or not, whether they are polite handshakers or beefy ones, whether they are stranger-huggers or not. I've come to realize I'm probably just as bad at "polite handshaking" as I am overly demonstrative Peace-passing. I'm afraid I simply don't know how to give a soft handshake. Those "holding a limp dead fish" handshakes make me anxious.
But the biggest thing that taught me to learn to just let go and let the Peace be what it is with each person was something I learned in attending a workshop about the Eucharist. I was reminded in this workshop that we are not just shaking hands. We're passing the honest to gosh Peace of Christ. It's a time we are invited to see Jesus in the face of the person we are looking at, and to feel the nail holes in his hands! How amazing is that! It is a moment to bond in silent prayer to each and every person we touch. That little tidbit changed so much for me at the Peace. Since that workshop, with every hand I touch, with every hug I exchange, I try to take at least a few nanoseconds for silent prayer about the other person--often just a simple, "Remember them, Lord, and their needs today."
What it also means, is that we need to think about the fact it can be mis-used. I have known people who go to great lengths to avoid giving certain other people the Peace, like sticking to one side of the aisle to avoid the person.. I have even known clergy who could not bring him or herself to giving someone the Peace. I have known people who have refused the Peace from people. I have been a person who has been refused when I offered it. I remember when it first happened, I had an equally despicable reaction. I started using it like a weapon--sticking myself in that person's frame of view where it forced a refusal, so I could feel vindicated for being refused.
That wasn't cool on my part. I should not have used Jesus as a blunt object to smack someone over the head. But I did. On the other hand, as I mentally worked my way through that situation, instead of feeling defensive or retaliatory, I began first to simply feel sad. Sad that they would want to withhold Jesus from anyone, let alone me. Like there wasn't enough of Jesus to share. That's not a very big Jesus. At the very least, it's a statement about control. Someone who refuses me the peace, for some reason, wants to punish me. Maybe I deserve punishment, maybe I don't, but I felt sad that there could not be dialogue.
Then I thought about my own resistances to my own transformations in my life. Sometimes I don't want to do something because I know, deep down inside, that the experience will change me, turn my world upside down. Sometimes I back away from something because I am not ready to be changed.
As this morphed along, I remembered something else--I don't always know what has happened in the lives of others, just as how someone who doesn't realize I was beaten as a child might not understand those few times I stiffen up when touched at a time I am feeling anxious. Maybe that person is trying to control or hurt me because he or she has some terrible thing that feels out of control, and to control the one thing a person can control has power.
It was at that moment I no longer cared whether that person refused me the Peace or not, and I no longer pushed the issue. My concern moved to my desire to heal a broken world, and the understanding maybe I am simply not the vehicle for that person's healing. I can't be the healer if it's more comfortable to see me as the object of fear. It was not my choice to make. So I began to leave it alone. I wish this had a happy ending, but as of this date it does not. Yet I became open to other happy endings. I became grateful to the things I could be a vehicle of healing in, and learned to simply rejoice in that, and to pray that someone changed all our hearts somehow. I became at peace that maybe that person will never be able to give me Peace, and that's okay as long as I give the Peace to those who will accept it, with complete authenticity.
By the same token, I have had times in my life where getting the Peace was the most joyful reminder of God's powers to heal. I had a time where I was the object of a very contentious rant that was not about me, but they seemed to want satisfaction from me. I realized on Sunday, I did not really want to engage that person. But when it came time for the Peace, that person strode over and offered it to me. I looked that person in the eye, called out that person's name, clasped both of my hands on theirs, and said warmly and strongly, "Peace be with you."
Now, that person and I have hardly exchanged 50 words in the meantime. But we wave and nod. I rejoice--seriously and emphatically rejoice--that this person and I can worship together even if we can't see eye to eye on this other topic. I can't describe how much love there is in that. It's one of those moments I remind myself, "This is what my Baptismal Covenant is all about." It is a reminder that we are called to be like Christ even in turmoil and misunderstanding--if anything, that is when we are most exactly called upon to be like Christ, and to see Christ in everyone!
It really is "the Peace that passes all understanding," isn't it?