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Starting Point

Words, like touch, sustain and heal


There was an advertisement on TV not too long ago that got my attention. I looked up from a book and stared at the muted screen. There was an image of a woman holding an infant’s hand. The hand was small, the hand of a new life just beginning to feel his or her way around this mystery that is human arrival.

I was fascinated when I saw the baby’s hand grasp and then squeeze the woman’s finger. The image brought home to me the need we humans -- indeed so many living things -- have for contact with others, especially others of like kind.

From the beginning, our need for others is essential to our lives. Touching is sacramental -- it is laden with mystery, need and sustenance. Without it, infants die. Without it, adults are impoverished.

There are many of us who lack an ongoing sense of touch. Single people, widows and widowers, people whose lives are for whatever reason removed from the nurturing that arrives to our flesh with touch. I miss touch, being a single man. I do my best to live with the lack of it.

A letter arrived a few days ago from a woman I have never met but have corresponded with for years. She lives far away. She’s an artist and has sent me some of her work, which is beautiful. And she has sent me poems and essays that she has written over the years.

Late one night I was here in my apartment, writing letters. I saw my friend’s letter on the table and picked it up again.

She wrote that she was worried when she had not heard from me in a while. During those months before I left the monastery, two events happened that had stopped my usual flow of words. The first event was the horrors of Sept. 11. The second was the awareness that I was losing the life I knew at the monastery. Those two events were painful, and I lost for a while the need or desire to write.

My friend hoped for words from me, and she prayed. She writes that the “Memorarae” sustained her. “We are not inspired by wars,” she wrote. “We are inspired by words.”

She went on to thank me for the words I had written to her, words that came from all sorts of places in my heart, places of joy and sorrow. “They touched me. My heart thanks you,” are the words that concluded her letter.

I was touched by something and even though an accompanying human touch would have been such a grace, I was alone and that was not possible. I wrote her back, thanking her for how good her words made me feel.

Something very important is connected to human touching. At its best, it leads to love. At its worst, it’s exploitative. Our flesh is a gateway to the love we all long for and want to give. The sacramental nature of being fleshed spirit opens human touch to what is in us that is of God. Intimacy, honesty, truth, fidelity, pure heartedness, weakness, forgiveness -- all of these are not at all far from the touching that yearns for love, for something of God, even though God may be far from our conscious thoughts when we seek and give touch.

Perhaps God loves best through us when he/she leads us through human touching to the fullness of committed love and lasting friendship -- for it is through these that we then are invited to ponder the meaning of why we mean so much to each other and what is in us, like something divine, that wants love to be lasting?

That little baby I saw on the silent TV screen grasped with delight what he or she does not understand but knows, somehow, that it is so needed. As he or she grows, the importance of worded touch will become as apparent and as needed.

I am looking for words to touch, looking for words that touch me as well. I am grateful for the words that have touched me so often in life. Words have brought something of the human heart to me. I hope that those times when I do touch the warmth of another, I do so with heart, with the sense that doing so is touching the sensitive and at times aching world of another, a world as complicated and as longing as mine for the God who inspires us to reach out and touch so as to better know God in life.

Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives and writes in Covington, La.

About Behrens

Fr. James Stephen Behrens has been a regular feature of NCR’s second page for eight years. His short meditations, according to letters we’ve received over the years, have been a welcome jumping off place to the pages that follow.

Recently he left the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga., after seven years as a Trappist postulant. He lives now in Covington, La., giving talks, writing, saying Mass, and taking some time to redirect his life and ministry. He returns to NCR’s pages this week.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002