I sit with my newest cancer sister, overnight, catching winks when she does, our heads turned together and my hand over hers. I listen to her breath coming in and out, slowing finally as she drifts from pain to peace, and then I too can drift away to sleep. Why is it she can sleep simply because someone is holding her hand?
What is it about touch that is so magical? Can relax the child strung tight with wayward electrical activity tightening her muscles like electric shocks, straight from the core and out to the tips of her fingers and toes. Calm the fears you bury deep inside and bring the breath rushing deep into the bottoms of your lungs where air hasn't made a trespass in days, your ribs like the iron bands on your barrel, screwed tight with the anxious nagging thought.
Two passages stick out when I think about touch and how it affects us. God uses touch when His angel delivers His message to Daniel in chapter 10 of the book of Daniel:
I heard his voice. At the sound of it I fainted, fell flat on the ground, face in the dirt. A hand touched me and pulled me to my hands and knees. 'Daniel,' he said, 'man of quality, listen carefully to my message. And get up on your feet. Stand at attention. I've been sent to bring you news.' When he had said this, I stood up, but I was still shaking. Then this humanlike figure touched me again and gave me strength. He said, 'Don't be afraid, friend. Peace. Everything is going to be all right. Take courage. Be strong.' "Even as he spoke, courage surged up within me. I said, 'Go ahead, let my master speak. You've given me courage.' (verses 9-10 & 18 The Message)
And Jesus - why is it that, all through the Gospels, Jesus touches the people He heals? And the people who touch His robe are healed? Why use touch, I've always wondered, when you could just speak it and it would be so. Why not just speak it and the whole world for that decade is healed? Why not speak it and I'll be healed? How does this Savior, with all power and might, who is "deeply moved" by the plight of the people He heals, ignore the pain and suffering of the rest of the world?
Deeply moved, Jesus touched their eyes. They had their sight back that very instant, and joined the procession. (Matthew 20:34 The Message)What about the gift of pain? How it makes the sweet so sweet, brings us to the core of our being, where we must confront our fears and grief, our shirking and our glad passing of our most difficult torches to the people we say we love. It makes us confront what is worst about us...and shrug off those weaknesses and search instead for the strength to triumph.
Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge we make promises only: pain we obey. ~Marcel Proust
Pain, too, brings out the worst and best in human action. The compassion I felt as a nurse only rose to the surface when confronted with the worst of human suffering. That compassion crystallized into a calling that has still not left me. Like Jesus, pain is what deeply moved me, pushing out selfish concerns and demanding my full attention, grace, love - willingness to touch and tend the ugly, stinky, liquefying flesh of a helpless human.
A surgeon does not slip from his mother's womb with compassion smeared upon him like the drippings of his birth. It is much later that it comes. No easy shaft of grace this, but the cumulative murmuring of the numberless wounds he has dressed, the incisions he has made, all the sores and ulcers and cavities he has touched in order to heal. In the beginning it is barely audible, a whisper, as from many mouths. Slowly it gathers, rising from the steaming flesh until, at last, it is a pure calling. ~Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery
How about the pain in me? The cancer, and the physical pain it brings; the treatment and tests, and the emotional pain of separation. Well, it is the teacher that demands attention. In areas where I lacked self-control and motivation to change, this crisis of illness - and my response to it, turning to God to find the strength necessary - has transformed me. I can't sincerely demand that it be healed, because I understand that I don't understand it - why God is using cancer, why He has allowed cancer, in our lives.
Yet, if He walked by me today, I would be the woman crushed to the bottom of the crowd, reaching a shaking hand to touch the hem of His robe, the whisper on my lips, "Father, heal me."
Just then a woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years slipped in from behind and lightly touched his robe. She was thinking to herself, "If I can just put a finger on his robe, I'll get well." Jesus turned—caught her at it. Then he reassured her: "Courage, daughter. You took a risk of faith, and now you're well." (Matthew 9:20 The Message)