Among the meanings of the body I commented on in “Frank Answers About the Meaning(s) of the Body” is the interpersonal body. In that article I mostly dealt with the diverse meanings of the personal body. But we also connect with other bodies in daily life. Liturgy also provides for bodily connections. I introduced the idea of the interpersonal body In my most recent book, Eucharistic Body (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), chapter 5 on “Epiclesis: Spirit and Community.” Since liturgy is a communal ritual performed by a social body expressing cultural values, it is important to explore this concept further because I think we Americans in particular have difficulties with physical touch and therefore with connections that make intimate relationships and community itself possible.
The Buddhist teacher of meditation, Reginald A. Ray, PhD, in Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008, 2014), writes: “In the modern world, we generally think of our bodies as being discrete entities separate from other people and from the larger world. This is an expression of the disconnection we feel between ourselves and the interpersonal and cosmic dimensions of life” (pp. 129-30).
Ray distinguishes between the personal body, the interpersonal body, and the cosmic body. These are layers of the body we all have, but we are often disconnected from the deeper layers of our body that would connect us with others (people and sentient beings) and with the world around us (the cosmos). In this article I focus on the interpersonal body. In “Frank Answers About Connecting with Earth’s Body” I discuss our connections with the cosmic body.
Spirit and Connections
Christians believe that God’s mission in Christ is to reconcile the world to himself. This means God aims to reconcile not just individuals to himself but the whole world. God’s aim is to reconnect what has been disconnected. God makes this connection with the creation through his Spirit. Part of God’s mission of reconnecting the world with himself is to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify a whole community that can model reconciliation. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does this work of connection through the sacraments instituted by Christ: principally Baptism and Holy Communion,
The Holy Spirit received in Holy Baptism is not just our personal possession. The Spirit connects us with others in the community of faith in Christ Jesus crucified and risen again. In the procession to the baptismal font it has been customary to chant the litany of the saints, thereby invoking the “whole cloud of witnesses” in the making of a new Christian. In the Great Thanksgiving prayer of the Eucharist the commemoration of the faithful departed and intercessions for the whole church throughout the world follows the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine and the communicants who receive it as the body and blood of Christ. In the Eucharist we are connected with all who share the body and blood of Christ in this community, but also around the world spatially and through the ages temporally. The invocation of the Holy Spirit is called the epiclesis (to call upon or invoke), and it is all about making connections.
I am writing this article in proximity to the Festival of Pentecost when Christians commemorate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles of Jesus on the festival of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s resurrection. This Day of Pentecost (50th day) coincided with the Jewish feasts of weeks, just as Easter (Pascha) coincided with the Jewish Passover (Pesach). Just as the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai commemorated on the Feast of Weeks constituted Israel, so the coming of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to send to his apostles constituted the Church. The apostles were energized by the roaring wind and tongues of fire to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ into all of the world. The story is told in Acts 2.
Filled with the Holy Spirit the apostles went out into the streets of Jerusalem that were filled with pilgrims and tourists who had come to the holy city for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost (the Feast of Weeks). They began telling everyone what God had done in Jesus the Christ (Messiah), speaking in such a way that each person heard the message in his own native language. Connections broken at Babel when people’s languages were confused are restored as the apostles speak and people listen and understand.
As the commotion subsided, Peter, as the leader of the apostolic band, preached a sermon to the crowd that had gathered. The essential message was that God raised up Jesus who was put to death by crucifixion, thus fulfilling the prophecies of Scripture. When the hearers asked what they should do, Peter said: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 NRSV)
According to St. Luke’s record in the Acts of the Apostles three thousand were added to their number that day. (That many baptisms must have required every pool in Jerusalem!) Thereafter those who were baptized “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). They also “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (2:44). Here is the embryonic church: it had all the necessary elements of church life from the very beginning: catechesis, baptism, ongoing teaching, Eucharist (daily), common prayer, and care for the needy.
The Church as the Body of Christ
The Apostle Paul also preached the gospel of Jesus Christ and planted new communities of Jesus among the gentiles. His brilliant metaphor for this living, organic, concrete Spirit-filled embodiment of Jesus is “the Body of Christ: ”Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit, because all those parts make up a single body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). At the beating heart of this body, providing the energy that enlivens the whole community, although each in different ways, is “the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).
This idea of the church as “the body of Christ” is not just spiritual poetry; it suggests that the church is a living organism. It is not invisible; it is visible in the bodies of the members who gather around the reading and preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacraments to have their union with Christ formed and renewed. Paul writes that it is precisely “in your togetherness that you are Christ’s Body” (1 Corinthians 12:27 Jerusalem Bible translation).
By remaining within this web of relationships with Christ and with one another, we experience salvation. Salvation occurs where there is the preaching of the gospel, baptism, Eucharist, fellowship, prayer, and mutual support in the community of faith. It is not just an individual experience. Living in this present world of disconnects we need the connecting support of this community in Christ. We can’t go it alone. We need to be part of the body of Christ and connect with other members of the body.
Connecting through Touch
Connection happens through touch. Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute, in her book Touch (2nd edition) reports on how research shows the importance of touch for human development. It is essential to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being at all stages of life. Research is finding other important benefits, ranging from stress reduction to improved self-image to relief from depression. Conversely, science reports that touch deprivation may be associated with many problems, including neurological, social, adaptive, and physical issues. Dr. Field cites the lack of touch as a common cause of delayed growth, immune dysfunction, and sleep problems during infancy and early childhood.
Our culture is touch deprived to a great extent. In part it is due to a cultural aversion to touch that I will address below. The growing use of massage therapy is making an important contribution to addressing this as well as the tensions that arise in our bodies due to the stresses of everyday life. We need to have our bodies touched and we also need to touch others.
Touch is important in the rites of Christian initiation. The water bath, anointing with oil, laying on of hands, enacted greeting of peace, and sharing Holy Communion are all performed on and with the body because through these rituals individual bodies are connected with the social body of the church. We need touch to open up the layer of the interpersonal body within us. We connect with others in society by touching each other’s bodies, even if it’s only a handshake or a team huddle.
Biologically, humans belong to the primates who reach out to touch one another to establish social bonds through cuddling, grooming, and other gestures. Some of the touching may lead to sex, although most touching among primates is not a prelude to sex but just a way of connecting socially. For humans, too, touching is a way of connecting to people socially. Touching is the most basic sensation infants need to bond with their parents and to connect with the world beyond themselves. For parent and child this experience of touch is an example of the interpersonal body.
The child is fed by touching the mother’s body, by sucking her nipples to receive the milk she produces in her breasts.
Before there are children, of course, there is the act of coitus between male and female spouses when the two become one flesh. “Two becoming one flesh” is the most intimate example of the interpersonal body. In all these instances of touch, breastfeeding, embracing, and hugging, as well as coitus, the chemical oxytocin is released. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that, when released, enhances feelings of trust, of wellness, tranquility and love.
People who have had cats or dogs that produce a letter of kittens or puppies see how young animals are all over one another in play. Young human children too touch one another in play and just out of curiosity. As children approach and go through puberty they might explore one another’s bodies to compare growth. This is nothing for parents to get freaked out over as long as children and youth are taught to ask permission to touch a friend’s body and that “no” means “no.” They should also be taught not to touch each others’ “private parts.” Parents will have to explain about the sexual organs and their purposes. But generally, touching should not be off limits as long as each person’s boundaries are respected. It is possible to teach a sense of respect for the body without inculcating a sense of guilt or shame.
The Interpersonal Body in Ritual Acts
We have ways of experiencing the interpersonal body in the rituals used in Christian liturgy. Most importantly, we share with each other the same loaf and cup in Holy Communion (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). This is a sharing in Christ’s body and and blood, according to Christ’s word. By sharing the bread and cup we also sharing Christ’s body and blood within each of us and collectively. In this sacrament we are connected/united with Christ and with others with whom we share the one loaf and the one cup.
The ancient Christians used to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Corinthians 16:20) when they came together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The purpose of the holy kiss was to show that they were reconciled with one another. They would also tend the sick and visit their brothers and sisters who were in prison for the faith. They connected with each other bodily. But modern Western Christians resist the bodily touching that makes connection possible. This is a cultural thing. But it impacts the experience of connectedness in the body of Christ.
Christians Resisting Touch
In liturgical renewal the ancient gesture of the kiss of peace has been modernized by hugging or shaking hands. But many worshipers are put off by it because, they say, it disrupts the flow of the liturgy, gets out of hand, or impinges on their sense of privacy. It should be seen as part of the flow of the liturgy. As a gesture of reconciliation it is takes time to reach as many others as possible in the congregation. Liturgy is a public event. All public events impinge on our private space.
In Catholic parishes especially it has become customary to hold hands while praying together the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer). Again, some worshipers object because they want to be left alone in their prayer. But we are praying corporately to Our Father in heaven.
As the Maundy Thursday foot washing has been restored, it has sometimes involved members of the assembly washing one anothers’ feet rather than only the priest washing the feet of acolytes or the pastor washing the feet of a few volunteers by way of demonstrating Jesus new commandment in John 13. Worshipers resist participating in this degree of connectivity as recipients of the washing in part because they are ashamed of their feet. Some pastors have substituted hand washing, which doesn’t carry the ritual or theological impact of foot washing as a servant activity.
Among modern Western Christians, Pentecostals are most free in the use of their bodies in worship. It’s noteworthy that the Christian tradition that most emphasizes the Holy Spirit also most emphasizes touch and connectivity. Some practices that developed in Pentecostal assemblies have been brought into Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches. One is the practice of the congregation as well as the ministers laying hands on persons for healing or commissioning someone for particular work in the church or sending a member who is moving to another parish
This kind of scene is enacted in the Episcopal parish I regularly attend. If we can’t reach the person who is receiving the laying on of hands we lay hands on the person closest to us. A chain link may flow down the center aisle as worshipers lay hands on one another aiming toward the one receiving the blessing. Too bad pews get in the way of connecting with one another with liturgical touch.
In these and other ways we could stir up and strengthen the interpersonal body that the Spirit-created body of Christ is intended to be. But for cultural reasons such acts of touching are sometimes resisted by members of the liturgical assembly.
Interpersonal motor actions are controlled by cultural mores. Americans are not known for being “touchy feelly” in the physical sense. Other than shaking hands, physical contact, such as holding hands or hugging, is reserved for people with whom we have a close relationship. It’s pretty awkward with a stranger (although we usually connect with strangers who are introduced to us by shaking hands with them).
In most Western countries overt physical contact is an expression of social dominance. People with a higher status tend to exert more physical contact toward peers and those who are under them. For example, your boss might come up and pat you on the back in greeting or maybe grip your shoulder in conversation, but you would never do that to your boss. So that kind of touching is hierarchical. You can be touched but cannot touch back.
Some cultures allow more physical contact during greetings and conversation. In the Middle East, southern Europe, and Latin America it is common for men to greet one another with a kiss on the cheek. In the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia it is common for men to hold hands while conversing or walking together. But in these cultures men do not greet women with a kiss or hold their hands in public.
Americans generally are uncomfortable being touched by or touching others. We don’t normally greet one another with hugs and kisses to the extent people do in some other societies. In America boys and girls are discouraged from touching one another at an early age by parents or teachers.
I remember in fourth grade that a new boy came into my class from England. I was interested in where he was from and befriended him. But our teacher saw me walking down the corridor with my arm around his shoulders and instructed me that “we don’t do that.” I said, “But I like him.” The teacher told me I should like him without touching him. Kissing a friend in school (of either sex) would really be off-limits to children.
In eighth grade a new boy named Freddie, whom I befriended, began walking alongside me on our way to school, sometimes with his arm around me. The fall weather was still warm and he began reaching into my shirt to touch my bare skin. He would meet up with me after school and walk as far as his house. He would invite me to stop in but I always had to get home to practice the piano and watch my siblings until my parents came home from work. One day I accepted his invitation and he was delighted to show me his room. (His parents were separated and he lived with his mother and was an only child.) He told me he liked to feel my skin and asked if he could feel my chest again. I decided there was no harm in it and I was actually a bit flattered. So I let him open my shirt and feel my chest with his arm around my shoulder. He said, “You’re a nice friend,” and that was that. He just had a need to touch me. Friendship and touching go together.
This boy may have been touch-deprived and was grateful that I allowed him to touch me skin-to-skin. Truth be told, I was also touch-deprived. I had been a war baby (WW II) and my father was off in the Army when I was born. My mother was not one for hugging and kissing. I was more likely to receive her hand in punishment than in caressing when I was growing up. There was little hugging and kissing in my family. I was actually happy when a friend hugged or touched me, even if it was wrestling with my friend Gary almost anyplace — on the gym mat in his basement, on his bed, in the pool during free time in high school freshman swimming class (wrestling nude in that case).
Touching someone may be off-limits to American school children, but in southeast Asia I saw boys and men walking down the street hand-in-hand or with arms around each other. In Singapore a Methodist high school was at the bottom of the hill from Trinity Theological College where I was living and teaching in the summer of 2013. I usually walked down the hill to the mall for breakfast as the youth were arriving for school on buses. I observed that most of the boys were holding hands with or hugging another boy (but not with a girl like American teenagers might do).
Even more shocking to this American was to see in a Korean spa not only fathers and sons and brothers but also friends scrubbing each other’s backs. (Mothers and daughters and and sisters and female friends presumably did the same in the women’s pool areas.) I was told by one of my Korean graduate students that congregational groups sometimes have a day at the spa and members sit on the stools in the pool area (in which clothing is prohibited) scrubbing one another’s backs
Friends Touching, Hugging Each Other
Friends sharing intimate aspects of their lives in a situation of quiet intimacy can lead to touching and hugging. In this scene of empathetic sharing in the beautiful coming-of-age film Stand By Me , River Phoenix’s character confronts his own family issues as he listens to Will Wheaton’s character relate his. They express their feelings and companionship by hugging.
Good friends are not averse to embracing each other as they express an intimate relationship even as they grow older. They have developed a comfort level with each other that enables them to be present to each other and touch each other as a sign of affection. Men in our culture have difficulties with intimacy, both with the opposite sex and even more so with their male friends, their “buddies.” Some men are concerned that they will be considered gay if they show signs of physical intimacy like touching one another. This is homophobia — men’s fear of connection with men.
On the other hand, American men are not actually averse to hugging each other in certain contexts, as we see in the huddles of sports team. These players on the Trojans football team of USC formed a shirtless huddle in the rain to show that they were not afraid to play in cold, rainy Everett, Washington.
An interesting phenomenon that has developed in recent years is the emergence of men’s cuddle clubs in which all men, straight, gay, or bi, married or unmarried, get together to cuddle with one another. The clubs are non-judgmental about sexuality, but many straight men appreciate the opportunity for bonding with other men without the fear of being perceived as gay. In fact, straight and gay men may cuddle each other.
Older teen and twenty-something males are also becoming more relaxed about touching and connecting with one another with hugs and cuddles. Most of them would categorize themselves as “straight.” See the story in the U.K.’s Daily Extra. https://www.dailyxtra.com/93-percent-of-straight-boys-cuddle-with-each-other-60231
Preparing Bodies for Connection
The body holds memories of what we have experienced. Sometimes retreats (mixed gender, couples, women, men) offer opportunities to share stories of our personal lives with the group.
Sometimes in a group sharing we recollect stories from our own life as we listen to someone else sharing a story from their life. There is always some shared ground with other people. Sometimes as someone else shares the dark areas of his or her life we come face to face with the dark areas of our own life.
The personal sharing that occurs at a retreat leads to a strong bond between the retreat participants that results in hugs at the end of the event. This is an expression of the inter-personal body.
Overcoming “Abundant Evil”
Of course, in addition to cultural or personal aversion to touch there has been what one commentator called the “abundant evil” of the widespread sexual abuse of youth by Catholic priests, sports coaches, teachers, relatives, etc. and, recently, testimonies of pervasive sexual harassment of women by men in positions of power. The reaction to these revelations is leading to a necessary emphasis on establishing boundaries and strict control over touching one another. I fear that these experiences will contribute to the body-shame that is pervasive in our society, shame which necessarily focuses on the body because we are our bodies, and on our relationship with others because shame is often caused by the behavior and attitudes of others toward us or because our feelings of shame inhibit our relationships with others. In avoiding the areas of shame we stay away from the deeper layers of our bodies. That shame has to be broken down with affirmations that our Creator honors our bodies by creating us in God’s image, our Savior came among us in human flesh and rose bodily from the dead, and the Holy Spirit is resident in our body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). “Therefore,” St. Paul adds, “glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
If the church really is the body of Christ, joined in mutual union with Christ in hearing his gospel and in receiving his body and blood into our own bodies (the same sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is being received by all communicants), it ought to be possible to transcend these traumas. We ought to be able to touch one another in ways that the world cannot do. In our present social situation people tend to avoid intimate contact with others, especially strangers. But in the church we have the gift of the Holy Spirit who came down on the Day of Pentecost to connect us once again with others and with the world. In the power of the Spirit we risk reaching out to connect with others through appropriate forms of touch.
To that end many young people will receive the laying on of hands on Pentecost when they affirm their Baptism in the rite of Confirmation and the Spirit given to them in Baptism is strengthened. Hands were laid on the confirmands at their baptism. Hands will be laid on them in further acts of blessing: perhaps in forgiveness and healing. There is real human connection without touch.
So pastors: lay hands on their heads firmly and at the greeting of peace give each confirmand a hug. Encourage them to hug each other. By these gestures of touch they will know that they are connected to their pastor, to one another, and to the whole church.
Pastor Frank Senn, STS
Note: The photos this article are of me confirming youth at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston in 2011 and 2013—my last confirmation classes. Confirmation in the Lutheran Church is understood as an affirmation of Baptism. The pastor who has developed a relationship with the confirmands in the confirmation ministry of the congregation is the officiant. It involves a blessing with the laying on of hands — a form of connection through touch.