How do we give expression to our spirituality? For me, as a health care professional, it is through the sense of touch. It is important to emphasise though that ‘touch’ does not work in isolation.
It all started in 1988 after I made First Vows and was living in multicultural and multifaith Southall, Middlesex. In this environment I began to get in touch with the richness of my Eastern roots. First of all, I had the privilege of learning Tai Chi from Gerda ‘Pytt’ Geddes, a Tai Chi Master and pioneer, also dancer and psychoanalyst, who found
within the symbolism of Tai Chi an allegory for the human journey from birth to death. She integrated this symbolism in her teaching and so shared her insights and wisdom. In learning to flow with Tai Chi I got in touch with my body and its depths.
Massage is something natural in the culture into which I was born and where I was brought up in Hong Kong but it was not then part of my life in England. It was when I was living in Southall, learning Tai Chi and working, as a nurse, with people with HIV/AIDS that I discovered that something amazing/mysterious happened at times when I was nursing/touching my patients – for example, the transformation in a young man after I washed and massaged his legs with soap and water following severe diarrhoea, another time when the very high temperature of a patient
came down after I mopped his brow and wiped his fingers and toes with a tepid flannel, when not even ice worked.
What followed, with the support and encouragement of my community, was that I went on to train professionally in massage therapy. I have since also trained in aromatherapy, Reiki and hypnotherapy, and have been practising these
therapies in palliative care for over 10 years.
Thinking back to those days of working with people with HIV/AIDS, there were certain elements which I think contributed to the abovementioned amazing/mysterious events – first, the person’s recognition of their need, their desire to receive/be helped, and their receptivity to ‘touch’ – some/all of which were non-verbal or expressed indirectly; secondly, my intention when attending to the person. Now, with more than 20 years’ experience behind me, I maintain that these two elements are central to ‘touch’ which is healing and empowering. Without it, the massage/touch becomes another ‘task’.
We use the term ‘touched’ when we want to say that we have been emotionally moved by someone else’s words, gesture or action. This can refer to a relationship or an interaction between two people; however, it can also describe an event or a communication that is more public, general and not directed personally or specifically to an individual. So … we can ‘touch’ others metaphorically by the way we relate, communicate – directly or indirectly, verbally or through the written word.
Jesus healed by physically touching as well as by his words, his commands. In his miracles we see Jesus responding to a person’s need, whether expressed by the individual or through an advocate. However, Jesus did not just touch people or issue a command to be healed, he also related, dialogued with the person or their advocate. Even as I use the touch therapies in my work/ministry I am aware that I am not Christ – and therefore I do not always know where healing needs to take place in the person or how God wants to heal them. In order to be God’s instrument – eyes, ears, hands - that is to be the body of Christ in this world, a certain commitment is required of me:
- The commitment to make time to listen to a person’s story – see/understand the person as a whole, build rapport so as to assess not only the physical need, but ascertain the emotional and the spiritual elements which contribute to the symptom, distress, discomfort. It is very important to be able to identify or get a sense of the person’s deeper needs for it is there that the healing often takes place. However, ‘touch’ does not work in isolation. As a touch therapist, one is not a counsellor. Nevertheless, for however short a time, the process of listening and responding to a person’s story, pain, fears and joys can empower the individual to process their own material, touch their pain safely, achieve greater clarity or understanding, come to a
certain peace or position which empowers them to cope, make decisions, let go, etc. To be able to be beside and respond to someone as they touch their pain we must be willing to touch our own pain. To be able to have compassion in the most difficult circumstances we must have experienced our own humanity.
- The commitment to spend a moment getting in touch with my desire that God should work through me, that I should not ‘get in the way’. In non-religious language this translates to getting in touch with my inner stillness and the intention that the touch treatment be for the person what is deeply ‘right’ for them, which responds to their deepest need, what is ‘best’ for them at any given time, and letting go of what I as the therapist/rscj may think is best for them.
In Reiki terminology the intention is “for the person’s highest and greatest good”. Being able to start and stay with or return constantly to this focus during the treatment is what brings about the amazing/mysterious outcome, which may be different for each individual. Sometimes when I am giving a treatment my hands pick up the person’s non-verbal communication of their deeper needs/fears or when something is changing/happening/being processed – I believe that this only happens when I am able to put aside
my own needs, distractions and be in touch with my still centre. I have supervision for my work using touch; I have spiritual direction for my faith journey.
For health care professionals, ‘touch’ used therapeutically has been described as “skilful touch”, “essential touch”, “the art of aware communication”, “an independent channel of communication”, amongst others. Skilful touch is said to be sensory education which stimulates self-awareness, re-awakens thesense of self that is beyond the physical and restores some sense of control in a seemingly powerless situation.
The practitioner is the facilitator. As a health care professional, using the touch therapies is a way of listening and responding with my hands, of hearing words which are said, emotions/needs which may not be said, of being aware of process and responding appropriately; it is about wanting what is best for the person at any given time and being aware that I am not in control of and do not know what that ‘best’ consists of; it is also about being aware of my humanity, that I am fallible, and therefore having supervision.
As an rscj the use of touch is a way of expressing my commitment to reveal the love of God, by being open to Christ using my hands, my eyes, my ears, my heart, my mind and my words. I hasten to add that, like anyone else, I do not always‘get it right’ but I am committed to deepening my own spiritual / faith journey and to nourishing myself so that I can continue to walk beside others. It never ceases to amaze me how God works in us, through us and with us when we are able to keep our heart open.
Marianne Tavares RSCJ