Monday, October 16, 2006

Hugs and Kisses

Without a doubt, I am taking a risk by posting this item on my blog. I have put more time into crafting it than any other entry so far—several hours over a week’s time—and have mixed its composition with much careful thought and prayer. Obviously, since here it is, I have concluded that it is worth the risk. Bearing in mind the nature of our incredibly loving congregation and (I hope) my own long-standing reputation of being a “safe” person, I think that people can benefit from this lengthy but well-considered post.

Okay. Here goes: I, who grew up with only rare expressions of physical affection, have become an affectionate person. I did it by choice. It was I who first brought hugs into my family of origin. It was extremely difficult and tense for me years ago when I began to do so, but now it has become quite natural to me, and my family has responded with equal fervor.

I do not often speak of my love for people, and that’s due just to my own reserved nature and (illogical but real) fear of rejection. It is still very hard for me to say, “I love you” to anyone, but I do try to show love and affection often, with hugs and tender touches. There are many people in the parish who are also comfortable displaying these signs of caring. We have a very cool church. I think that it is likely that my own transformation in these matters has contributed to the transformation of Blessed Sacrament that we have seen in the past half dozen years or more.

The New Testament exhorts believers to show proper affection to each other as a natural outgrowth of Christian profession. “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10) is one such passage. “Love each other wholeheartedly with all your strength” (1 Peter 1:22) is another. The very specific “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14) is echoed in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. There are other passages. Their abundance shows that this practice was common, maybe even central, in first-generation Christian life.

I realize, of course, that one must be cautious in these days when misconduct is common, but I am not actively tempted in that direction. I trust that people know that. When one is free from the fear of acting inappropriately, the potent reality of what the New Testament teaches on the matter unfolds like a treasure map. And I am convinced that refraining from touching people at all is NOT the best way to avoid improper behavior. At the least, that would violate the plain teaching of Scripture, not to mention causing other kinds of harm. On the contrary, we must learn what it means to be faithful to the New Testament and follow it, for only that is the way of true love. My own desire to be faithful to God in this matter caused me to choose to change. Pursuing this course has made possible my journey from being a cerebral icicle a couple of decades ago to the gushy touchy-feely person I am now.

For long I have made it a practice to touch invalids in hospital and the elderly. It is common in such situations that people are rarely touched, and when they are, mostly by professionals doing a job. We know the term “starved for affection”, which aptly implies that signs of affection are godly and natural means of feeding and nourishing people; without such signs people can wither, like a plant with insufficient water. In addition to the hospitalized and elderly, there are plenty of young people who suffer from this tragic but easily addressed malady.

I also touch those who come to confession when I pronounce the absolution, and those who come to the altar for a blessing on Sunday. Jesus taught the apostles and their successors down to the present day about the “laying on of hands” as an outward and dependable sign of acceptance, mercy, strengthening, love, and conferring gifts of power. There was a time when touch was the only ministry I could use in ministering to a man dying of AIDS. It was effective, and quickly opened the door to a ministry of prayer and Bible reading that the individual had resisted at first.

“Greet one another with the kiss of love.” Though sometimes one may give or receive a holy kiss, most of the time New Testament affection is expressed today with hugs. There are hugs of greeting and leave-taking, and there are also hugs of affection and healing that can come in times other than saying “hello” or “goodbye”. They can all be expressions of pure and genuine heartfelt Christian affection.

Usually one doesn’t have to ask before hugging someone. You can just tell when it’s right, when it’s natural, when it’s wanted, and when it’s needed. Some people definitely ought not to be hugged. For various reasons such persons find it difficult to trust outward signs of affection, and need wide personal space and ample boundaries. There are others who need hugs, and even have the confidence and courage to ask, “Can I have a hug?” I am always glad to oblige, but I am personally nourished deeply by the only person who used to ask me, “May I give you a hug?” She always asked with the sparkling eyes of admiration. She doesn’t ask me anymore—she just hugs because she knows that I will always say Yes. Duh.

A child’s hug is in a category by itself. There hardly isn’t any child who doesn’t like a hug unless he or she has been poorly treated. It must be a strange experience to hug someone who is two or three times more massive than yourself, but that doesn’t seem to stop any of the children in our parish. After the children’s sermon, when I announce the Peace the children surround me like a football huddle. As they jockey for position, I have to struggle to keep on my feet. I am waiting for the day when I lose my footing and fall to the floor with several small persons on top of me. That would be undignified but delightful.

There is the nine-year-old girl for whom one hug is not enough. She hugs me, disengages, and then hugs me again. In this dear child one can see active and pure innocence in its fullest form.

By now everyone knows the recently-adopted little Ethiopian sisters. Whenever I hug the younger one, she giggles and wants more and more and more. One would never guess that she became an orphan at the age of six.

For adults with their greater emotional and relational complexity, there are many different kinds of hugs and embraces that communicate an enormous array of meaning. I keep in mind the admonition Paul gave to Timothy: “Treat the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger as your sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2).

There is one young person who hugs with ribcage-crushing intensity, holding on tight for a long time. I think she may be clinging not to me alone but also to something that hugs might represent for her. I sometimes wonder if she will release me before I feel faint for lack of oxygen.

Whenever I promote people to first degree black belt, in the awards ceremony in church I always kneel before each new black belt and tie the belt around his or her waist for the first time. One of the great hugs of this year was the one given by the big, strong, gentle bear of a man as I hugged him after placing his black belt around him. He returned the hug and lifted me off the floor for a few seconds. My feet dangled, and the solemn moment was interrupted by a wave of laughter in the congregation.

There is a widow who greets me with a warm hug at the church door on Sunday, and always thanks me for it. She began to hug me only after her husband died. She always smiles broadly, but I discern the grief that remains in her heart that a hug can do only a little to assuage.

Years ago there was a retarded girl in the parish family. When she was in her early twenties, her hugs could crush barrels. I always had to prepare myself before I moved into place for her hug. She showed unrestrained exuberance in her affections, knowing that she was loved, accepted, and wanted wherever she went.

I often hug a young lady who delights in the embrace. We fit very well together. When I hug her, I can even place my cheek on the top of her head. There is strong warmth and dear softness to her. If there is pure affection indeed, this is it.

One tremendously moving hug was the one I shared with a man twice abandoned by family—abandoned by his birth family when he was given up for adoption, and years later abandoned again by his adoptive family when he became a Christian. I told him that he was part of a church family now, and he would always belong to us. Then I hugged him. He gasped with emotion.

There is a 90-year-old woman who smiles warmly and fully when I sit down next to her in the pew on Sunday before Mass begins, and hold her. She rests her head briefly on my shoulder. And then she says, “I always enjoy your hugs.”

There is a careful, guarded young woman who sometimes asks to see me, bearing a burden of hurt that occasionally gets her down. My words of counsel seem to be only moderately effectual, and I know that words alone cannot address her needs. At length I stop talking and, with her permission, sit next to her and just slowly, gently, and wordlessly enfold her while she nestles inside my arms. It is more than a hug—it is fatherly holding. NOT to hold her at that time would be heartlessly cruel. It is completely one-way—I give, she receives. No, it is not one-way at all; she gives me her hurt, or at least trustfully allows me to hold her as she holds her hurt. It breaks and heals my own heart all at once. (Quite often breaking is healing.) The tenderness I feel when I hold her both brings tears to my eyes (I do not yet have the courage to let her see them) and makes me soar. Surely, if ever there was a reason to call a priest “Father”, this is it. I remember the times when I was a child and my father held me the same way, and I felt my smallness safely enveloped in his strength and warmth.

In the August meeting of the Vestry (church board) I spoke briefly about my awkward attempts to draw personal strength from my parishioners’ affections in a time of lonely leadership. Two women who were visiting the meeting gave me hugs as my comments were drawing to a close. One who has known me for thirty years simply got up out of her chair, walked purposefully around the tables as I was speaking, and wrapped me up without hesitation. Another quickly followed her example and approached me confidently with a bold, open expression, knowing that she was bent on doing something wonderful and welcome, and which obviously gave her great pleasure. Woo!

“Greet one another with the kiss of love.” There are three men who kiss me: two go to Blessed Sacrament and kiss me on the cheek when we share the Peace. The third is a huge man, a former professional football player and police officer who is now our bishop, whose embrace is all encompassing. Being hugged by him is not only a demonstration of affection but also an act of trust. (I think of that scene in the classic Disney movie “Fantasia” in which the crocodiles dance with the hippopotami.) His kiss is genuine and full of meaning.

A few years ago, just a few months apart, two girls, one of them neurologically and the other emotionally handicapped, kissed me spontaneously on the lips as I bent down to play with them: the child in our parish family who suffers from Rett Syndrome, and a two-year-old. Their kisses amazed, impressed, and pleased their mothers, for neither had seen their children show such affection before outside of their own family. The kisses gave me a huge lift, too!

A caution: it is possible that some of those whose compassionate moments I described above may read this blog. I expect that they will be able to identify themselves, and I trust that they will not mind that I have opened my heart in these reflections. If they do mind, I apologize and hope that I have not provided enough information that others can identify them. I have tried not to. In most cases (just one or two exceptions), I wrote only of what is publicly known. If I have made anyone uncomfortable, please come to me and let me know. I will apologize and give you a hug.

Every one of my expressions of affection is genuine and heartfelt—I never just “go through the motions” or “do my job”. Probably my personal history makes it impossible for me ever to treat signs of affection lightly. In these matters there should be not too little, not too much, and maybe not too often. Overdo these signs of affection and they lose their power.

But oh, I would be so diminished if it were not for hugs and kisses! So would our whole parish. We are a loving, safe, affectionate church, authentic in this way to the New Testament, and I exult to be a part of it.


Jon Cooper said...

The church that I attend is also big into giving hugs, and it's taken me several years to get accustomed to it. At first it seemed pretty strange and made me uncomfortable, but eventually I realized that these people love each other in the Lord and they aren't embarrassed about it - they want to be encoruaging and tell people that they love them.

I am not an openly affectionate person, but I have come to see the value in it: there is great joy in loving one another with a godly love. Telling someone that you care about them is such a great joy: what value could there be in hiding something like that?

As C S Lewis once said, some things in this world have been pushed poles apart from where they used to be. Lots of things can be twisted by evil, but that doesn't meant that the real thing that is being twisted is bad - it just highlights the need to show how glorious the real thing really is.

Thanks for the brilliant reminder of the real nature of - and need for - Christian love.

Tim Campbell said...

I’m a member of the Vestry Father David mentioned. At one of our recent meetings, I jokingly said “I don't hug”. I think there has been an “anti-hug backlash” the past couple of years, fueled by people who think hugging is somehow a show of weakness. But when I see Father David moving among his congregants on Sundays, giving and receiving hugs, I see a strength that goes beyond definitions of “tough” or “soft”. Hugs become a physical manifestation of the spirit moving among us.

A few months ago, I attended sexual harassment training required of all employees where I work. One of the subjects was hugging and unwanted touching. Clearly, there are times and places where hugging is inappropriate. But I think we lose a vital human and spiritual connection when we view all touching as bad. Father David is right—many people need a touch at just the right moment.

Although I am not an outwardly emotional or affectionate person, I make it a point to hug my 11-year old son and wife as much as possible in public. To me, this tells the world I love these people so specially I ma willing to let down my defenses in public and display that love. I also want to teach my son there is nothing un-manly about appropriate hugging and touching.

I have been attending Blessed Sacrament a little more than two years. Father David has taught me much about Christina living in those two years. His blog just taught me something else—about outward expression of inner love. I guess I won’t say “I don’t hug” anymore!

lasselanta said...

Thank you, Father David, for not being afraid to love us and show it. You are an image of God's Father-love to so many.

Joi said...

As someone who grew in a non-touchy (but very loving) sort of family, hugging has been very hard for me to learn, too. I tend to shrink away from unexpected touch, and especially when I am emotionally vulnerable. But being in a loving church family has helped immensely, and having good friend who insist on hugging hello and goodbye has helped as well, but I think mostly any progress that I've made has come from knowing I'm surrounded by people who love me and want me to be with them, even when I'm..prickly. :)

Daniel Peckham said...

i love this post. i'm going to save it.

-katie p

Hannah Jolene said...

I have always loved to give and receive hugs. I think that most people prefer this route over kissing in order to express their love for someone. Over the past year, I have been learning how to give and receive 'the kiss of love' to those I love outside of my family. The kiss of love seems to be so foreign to those of us from the US. It is as if it is only reserved for our family or our significant other.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine and I witnessed two elderly ladies from our parish giving each other a 'kiss of love' goodbye. They acted as though they have been best friends for life. It was a blessing for both of us to see their enduring love for one another.

I hope that our parish can purely develop our love for one another. Even further, I hope that we may become vulnerable and willing to display it to each other.

Thank you Father David for being willing to set an example to all of us!

Anonymous said...

I have been attending Blessed Sacrament for almost two years now. A large part of what intrigued me was an overwhelming feeling of love, joy, and peace.

This is something my soul had been lacking. It was almost a forgotten part. I had it, but somewhere they dissapeared. Imagine life without one of the above, or all.

Since I've been at Blessed Sacrament - and when one is experiencing trials, a comforting hand means more than one could say. It brings peace to the soul.

I've been to churches that show affection - but true affection is given from the heart. It is affection from the heart that can heal almost any pain.