The Privilege of Touching

Walter died recently. He was 93. He was blind and a home-bound member of our congregation. For the last five years of his life I visited him on a regular basis as part of our Parish Visitor program. By visiting our shut-ins at least once a month, lay persons supplement the calling ministry of our pastor and vicar (seminary intern).

Although Walter’s eyes were dim, his mind was sharp and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He was also something of a philosopher, and his philosophy was summed up in two words: “Always something.” In our conversations he and I solved many of the world’s problems. Unfortunately, the world failed to take notice, and the problems remained unsolved.

My years with Walter began shortly after he got home from jail. He had shot his wife. The health-care system had failed them miserably, had sent her home for fi- nancial reasons without adequate pain management. She was in severe and steady pain until he could take it no longer and, quite literally, put her out of her misery. Walter called the police immediately to report what he had done. It was as classic a case of mercy killing as there can be. Because of this, his age, and his cooperation, he served only one year in jail.

As you might imagine, he was more than a little distant and suspicious when I showed up, a perfect stranger. Conversation didn’t come easily. On my third or fourth visit he suddenly asked, “Do you know what happened with my wife?” “Yes,” I said, “I know.” That was the end of it, or rather, that was the beginning of our friendship. It was as if the walls of Jericho had come a’tumblin’ down. He no longer needed to fear that I would somehow find out and then…well what then?

It was a privilege to become friends with Walter. He had lived in Pearl River all his life, and he gave me a feel for what life had been like when everybody knew everybody and everybody walked wherever they were going in town. Although my uncles had served in World War II, Walter was the only person I ever had the chance to talk to about what it was like. In between the fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries of the Normandy invasion, I gained an appreciation I had never had before for those who risked their lives in our defense, although Walter’s service had been in the Pacific.

Walter was a member of the volunteer fire department for over sixty years. When his sister died a few years earlier, most of the people at the wake were firefighters, many of them too young to have been in active duty with him. At his own funeral, more than forty volunteer firefighters and some of their wives were present for a “firematic” service that preceded the Christian funeral. In their dark blue dress uniforms, with caps and white gloves, they marched in twos to the casket, stood briefly with bowed heads, then saluted together and made way for the next pair. I had a sense of what the bond of Christian fellowship might be like where membership in the church put one’s life at risk.

Walter had become the adopted grandfather of Devin, the twenty-month old daughter of his neighbors. On my first visit to him in the hospital, she was there with her parents. I beeped her nose and then mine. She giggled and Walter threw his head back in the kind of laugh that to me is one of the best proofs of the existence of God. It was to be the last time I would see the real Walter I had come to know and love.

My final visit was in a nursing home, a truly dreary warehouse of the dying. He and several others were in wheelchairs in the hallway, a field trip, as it were, from their beds. Although he tried to speak, he was too weak to make himself audible. I didn’t think it made much sense to chatter to him about my day. So I just put my hand on his shoulder and sat with him for a while.

I got to thinking about another kind of touching. In our church we kneel at the communion rail to receive the bread and wine. The pastor and vicar give the wafers, and a lay communion assistant pours the wine into the glasses that communicants bring with them. Some bring with them a child too young to receive communion. When I have the opportunity to assist, I put my hand on the child’s head or shoulder and say, “The blood of Christ was shed for you too.” I don’t know why, but somehow those moments are more deeply meaningful to me than filling the cups of others and saying, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Deeply meaning to me. I have no illusions that in this communion touch or in putting my hand on Walter’s shoulder I was doing others any good. Maybe. God only knows. What I do know is that it is a marvelous privilege to be the presence of the church of Christ to someone in this way.

From the mystical writings of St. John of the Cross to the gospel song of the Gaithers, “He Touched Me,” Christians have found it necessary to invoke, not just the senses of sight and sound, but also the sense of touch to talk about our relation to God. But the human touch, as in the laying on of hands, can be an almost sacramental gift of God’s grace.

We all touch other people’s lives every day. For the most part this touching is metaphorical, but that is not to say that it is any less real or any less important than literal touching. No doubt there are duties and responsibilities involved. But thinking about Walter and the children at the communion rail suggests to me that the ability to touch others, and in so doing be the presence of God’s grace to them, is a privilege beyond measure.

Merold Westphal teaches philosophy at Fordham University and is a contributing editor of Perspectives.