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The Christian meaning of touch

· ​Just relations and true words ·

The Christian faith is an education in touch inasmuch as it is focused on the Incarnation. It invites us to acknowledge the importance of our bodies, of our physical attractions, and not to believe, a dreadful illusion, that we are liberated from them.

El Greco, “Christ Healing the Blind” (1570, detail)

The spirit of the times blows in an opposite direction: far from being condemned, the “contactless” technologies are symptomatic of the tone we want to adopt – efficient, rapid and independent. The development of contactless communication is light and airy: it marvellously achieves the dream of a humanity freed from the burden of bodies and from the risks of contact. Is this not perhaps one of the great traps into which Christianity so often falls, too ready to believe itself liberated from the burden of bodies and instincts?

Christianity, all too often suspected of despising the body, of constraining it or of dissolving it into spiritual metaphors, nonetheless offers an amazing resource for thinking of the articulation of touch and the intangible. The Gospel narratives by overturning the religious category of the untouchable, which would make a clear separation between the sacred and the impure, enable us to experience what in our lives pertains to the intangible and is no longer presented as a prohibition but rather as a limitation, the condition for the birth of just relationships and true words, to which the Christian spiritual traditions initiate us.

Saturated by advertising, images and technical achievements, our minds are continuously prompted to dream of an existence different from that which is rooted in the most elementary experiences of our earthly condition. Let us not therefore be too hasty in throwing the stone at this technical and commercial world which could toss it back into the garden of our conceptions of spiritual, and more specifically Christian, life. Our lives have importance and our contacts with others are the first to make us feel it. Now, Christianity nourishes precisely a tactile sense – let us call it this – of life. Believing in the Risen Jesus Christ can prevent us from becoming out of touch with each other, without either evanescence or predatory attitudes. The Christian faith puts touch into practice. We realize straightaway that this statement clashes with the objection which might be made, namely that Christianity had rejected rather than encouraged touch, or that it had perverted it in favour of predators shielded by a silent and blameworthy institution. Yet touch has a crucial place in the Christian faith which moves and re-elaborates it. Christianity offers a certain art of advancing through the mishaps of life, at the same time groping and touching.

Christianity is still suffering because of its prudish morality according to which touch can only come from having given in to the temptation of the sensual attraction of the flesh and can only lead to it. Nevertheless touch in Christianity is not an object of prohibition, yet neither is it devoid of limitations.

Jesus touches and lets himself be touched. He touches in order to heal, like the thaumaturges of his time. This is not all: in a ritualized gesture he lays his hands on people and touches their eyes, puts his fingers in their ears and touches their tongues (cf. Mk 7). Jesus lets himself be touched in the crowd but also in the scene recounted differently in the Gospels, known as “the anointing at Bethany”. Luke writes: “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster vase of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment” (Lk 7:37-38). It is well known that a whole tradition of figurative interpretation avoids the question of touch or reduces these gestures to signs of affection. But today people are more sensitive about not seeing the meaning of this scene metaphorically but rather seeking to understand the symbolic importance of gestures which the Gospel account presents as non-figurative. Although there are of course attitudes of repentance and conversion, these are inserted into a gendered relationship between a man and a woman, a relationship which is clearly expressed in the register of touch and smell. The abundance of kisses and of tears shed without qualms and accepted without reticence indicates the intensity of a scene where the body is the first place of the manifestation of a desire for encounter.

However the scene does not lead to any crossing of boundaries other than that of the forgiveness which Christ pronounces. Far from condemning her or holding her in his arms, Christ restores this woman to her integrity without either touching her or making her an untouchable. The forgiveness takes place in the rediscovered space of her own freedom, expressed here by Christ’s passiveness: in letting himself be touched, he absolves. He does this without laying his hands on her or making any other contact, with a single liberating word, for Christ remains in the role in which he is recognized, respected by this woman reputed to be a sinner. Without yielding to the sensuality that her actions might have awakened – as in the Pharisee’s eyes – Christ restores to this woman her capacity for loving freely. Touch should not be interpreted metaphorically here but rather as a place where the sensory experience, ambivalent or unspecified, turns into benevolent and wholesome relations. Corporeal touch has meaning. Christ’s words symbolize it. In touching him, this woman is no longer lost: Christ does not hold her back in the place she used to take for herself. Thanks to him, she discovers the door through which her freedom passes: “Go...”.

Let us move on to after the Resurrection. Two scenes strike us: the apparition to Mary Magdalene and the meeting with Thomas. They occur one after another in chapter 20 of John’s Gospel, through the first encounter of the Risen One with the disciples, from whose number at that moment Thomas is absent. A sequence is outlined. Jesus says to Mary who turns to him: “Do not hold me”, noli me tangere. Then, notified by Mary Magdalene, the disciples meet Jesus who shows them his hands and his wounds. Thomas, absent at this first meeting, has declared that he will not believe unless he places his hand in Christ’s side, as Jesus, returning a second time, invites Thomas to do: “Put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side”. The contrast between these two scenes prevents us from saying that the Risen Christ cannot be touched. Although it seems that Mary Magdalene cannot hold him, Thomas is invited to touch him. The Resurrection does not reintroduce the prohibition of touch, as if the divinization of the flesh made it untouchable. It is to rediscover the other function of the untouchable, which this time no longer designates the impure but the divine, the sacred. Since the Risen Jesus asks Thomas to put his fingers in his wound, touch remains in the order of the possible and the permitted. In both these scenes, however, touch is suspended. Thomas, on hearing Jesus speak, inviting him at the same time both to touch him and to stop being faithless, does not put his hand into the wound. He exclaims “My Lord and my God!”, an authentic proclamation of faith in the Resurrection of Jesus. As for Mary, she effectively lets Jesus go and she herself is able to go. Let us follow this thread which enables us to move on from the abolition of the untouchable to the expression of the intangible.

Thomas, without Christ holding back his hand, does not touch him: he himself sets a limit to his touching. He abstains. What did he not touch? The wounds, the stigmata, the signs through which the One who was put to death was recognized but whose body, which speaks, is the body of a living man. The Risen One’s conversation with Mary Magdalene had explained this meaning. The living man is not held back. Life is a passage which can lead to completion. The limit of death, marked by the wounds in the body that it would be possible to touch, is no longer a closure of the individual existence but a passage. “Do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”. Holding back the Risen One would prevent the passage to completion, a passage which belongs not only to Jesus but also to his brothers and sisters. The intangible is the condition for realizing the completion, the possibility of movement to which the touching that holds back would be an obstacle.

Titian, “Noli me tangere” (1485-1490, detail)

Through the articulation of the touchable and the intangible is meant the only thing that counts: not the presence of the Risen One’s body, visible and touchable, but the passing to which Christ brings us through his body and his word. Faith in the Risen One enables us to discover that we do not know the importance of our bodies: the body is more than what we see and touch. It leads us towards the Father, wherever the fact that we are called to relations of brotherhood is manifest.

Concealed in a certain narrative of Christianity, the body is nevertheless precisely the birthplace of the believing word. The body that lets itself be involved speaks to God but also speaks of him.

The interpretation of the Song of Solomon has nourished a long Christian tradition: Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, to mention only the most famous figures in this tradition. The language of love of the Song is found at the level of the body, which awakens in contact with the creation and the lovers. “O my dove, in the clefts of the rock”, gazelle, hind, goat, sheep, turtle dove, but also apple, lily, vine – more than a repertoire, the profusion of imagery generates a rhythm: the power of feeling does not sink into a chaos of the senses but gives rise to a word of gratitude between the lovers. The explosion of the senses is subordinate to the enunciation of feeling: desire is “strong as death”, words with which the song closes to affirm its indestructible character. This biblical book, as the mystic poets were to recall, is striking because of its sexual resonances. In the young woman’s room she dreams: “My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt” (Song 5:4-5). The exegete Jean-Pierre Sonnet wrote in this regard that since “Metaphors of love draw directly on desire, they preserve a language which is very close to the way of imagining, to affectivity and to the body; the word becomes extremely motivating. If the lovers of the Song are poets, it is in order to save their love, to make it rich in promises, and to irrigate them with desire. In other words, it is to make it strong as death”.

But why was this book included in the Scriptures? In the first century of our epoch rabbis had the intelligence and wisdom to underline an essential fact: scents, colours and sensations cannot be separated from the experience of God. It can be understood in this way: faith accommodates what is at stake on the human level. Nothing in our lives takes place outside our carnal and sensual condition. As we have seen, the Gospels do not overlook any of this, either before or after the Resurrection. What the Song testifies to here, as elsewhere do very numerous Christian works, is that this carnal condition is the basis of Christian expression, its substrate, its humus. Let us not be separated from our bodies in our spiritual experience.

The recourse that the lovers of the Canticle have to their experience of creation through their senses, in the jubilee of its abundance, to invent a word that saves their love, draws on what is the most fundamental part of human existence. This demonstrates the freedom and hope that they both receive from their love. The Christian faith has its starting point in this freedom. “I arose to open to my beloved” says the beloved maiden in the Song: no one will force the door to love in truth.

It is particularly urgent to perceive the obstacles in our interior life and to mark out the journey to which our freedom is committed. Showing himself to me as the living man who lets himself be touched, Christ invites me to feel in my innermost heart what binds me, attracts me and carries me away to let the space of my freedom arise there. It is not by disapproving of touch nor by letting it follow its impulses that my life is delineated. Touch is overpowered by the experience of the intangible, which is not the promulgation of untouchable objects or people, not even of God. The Gospels reveal what in our own lives is intangible and goes beyond the experience of touch as an act of grasping. I do not grasp the other but I discover him or her in the movement which orientates my existence. For the Christian faith this orientation is given by the call of God who holds us without holding us back, like a father happy to see his sons and daughters following his own life. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace”, Jesus says to the woman in the crowd who asked him to heal her: “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well”. After hearing her, Jesus does not detain her. The world that I am granted to hear and to taste palpitates with encounters, through the senses and through speech. I receive him in sharing. Those who do not assess their burdens cannot make themselves free and respect others with grace.

Patrick Goujon
The unabridged text of the article
was published in last November’s issue of the monthly journal “Études”




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 12, 2019