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Mourning the loss of human touch

Reflecting on the restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sean van Staden comments on the importance of human touch and personal contact to foster our relationships with one another and with God.

Starved of a regular in-person parish Mass for more than five months, I long to smell once again the almost overpowering smells that filled the church’s air when incense mixed with the perfumes of parishioners. Even the off-key, loud and enthusiastic singing of the old man in the last pew of my Church seems appealing now.

Although I can no longer study the patterns on the priest’s vestments or critique the new hairstyles of fellow parishioners, I know that churches are doing their best to minister in creative ways, by livestreaming Masses, offering drive-through communion and hosting Bible-study groups on Zoom. Despite all that, I  long for the up-close experience of a community at prayer and human touch.

I am deprived of feeling the warmth of another person’s hand at the sign of peace and the weight of the chalice handed to me at communion. But, were it not for the pandemic, I may never have realised how essential physical touch, symbols, ritual and shared presence are to the human experience.

I  long for the up-close experience of a community at prayer.

In catechism classes, I was taught that “the sacraments are an outward sign of inward grace, an efficacious symbol of the life and love of God in our lives.” A meme shared online by a friend, showed illustrations of various forms of hugs and asked the question: “How do you hug?”.  Reacting to the post on social media, one person commented:  “Honestly, I’ve forgotten.” But, I’m not sure that I have forgotten.

Seeing the world anew

Instead, I believe that we are being invited into a new way of seeing the world, to be more aware of and grateful for the little things. The eyes and heart of a Christian must be wide open to witness the grace of every moment.

A few weeks ago, I returned to the shops for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Posters and banners everywhere reminded me to keep a two-metre distance from anyone and to use hand sanitiser and wash my hands regularly. “No Mask. No Entry”, or some variant thereof, greeted me at the entrance to almost every store. I was petrified to touch any surface, not only with my hands but with almost any part of my body or clothing. As I made my way down the aisles, I  would cast an intense stare that must have imposed the fear of God on anyone walking in my direction.

Returning home, I realised that the shopping experience had left me feeling very anxious. I tried to calm myself down and conjure up the way things were before COVID-19.

At the start of my Jesuit training early last year, I spent two months as a general worker at Katondwe Mission Hospital in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley. Daily, I witnessed the role that touch played in soothing the sick, sorrowful and scared, when I placed my hand on a shaking nervous shoulder, whispered, “Pephani, pephani. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” in the ear of a grieving daughter and built puzzles with children anxiously awaiting surgery.

Contrasting this experience with my present way of behaving, I’ve realised how difficult it must be for those who rely on touch and non-verbal cues to communicate ordinarily and for those in need of consolation.

Daily, I witnessed the role that touch played in soothing the sick, sorrowful and scared.

And now, in my community where, as in many family homes, we have been sharing much more time together than before, it has encouraged me to be more present to the needs of my brother Jesuits. I have also learned that I can do without much of what I thought was indispensable.

As a Catholic, I have had to learn to take personal responsibility for my faith life and to keep alive my relationship with the Lord, a personal commitment to prayer that I know will enhance my sense of community and shared responsibility when I’m finally able to go to Mass in a parish.

Silly as it may sound, it’s also the small things that are really making a big difference in fighting COVID-19. Wearing a mask, regularly washing and sanitizing our hands, and maintaining social distancing are still the small yet much-needed gestures of great love.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Sean van Staden SJ
Sean van Staden is a Jesuit scholastic from Johannesburg, studying philosophy at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. Before entering the Society of Jesus, he studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Witwatersrand and was actively involved in ministries to the youth and the poor based at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, the Jesuit parish in Braamfontein.

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