A good friend of mine recently told of her teenage son’s confirmation in their parish’s worship service. For those readers unfamiliar with this, it is the formal ritual in many Christian traditions in which individuals publicly declare their commitment to Jesus and to the body of believers who have supported and nurtured their growth in faith. I found myself deeply moved as my friend detailed the gathering of family, friends, elders, and clergy around her son, proclaiming with their physical closeness God’s and their unquenchable love for him. All this in a church building filled with light and artwork that—without words—direct the attention of the people to a story of redemption. And then they did what has long been a tradition of Christian experience. To a person they all placed their hands on her son’s head and shoulders as deep, meaningful prayers were offered to God on his behalf.
For some, none of this is novel. You may have experienced something like this more than once in your life. Some may find it odd, especially if you have had limited experience within the church. Some may find it discomforting, as physical contact has been for you more about brutality than beauty. But for all of us, this event has much to teach us about the way our minds (not least our brains) respond to faith’s embodiment. For many in our culture following Jesus has been experienced primarily as a function of cognition, an assent to an abstract, rational belief. This does not mean that this abstraction has no influence on our behavior. In fact, many would report that what they do is a direct consequence of what they believe, which they describe in the language of what they think rationally. There is great value in this, and for certain, what emerges from our “conscious” prefrontal cortex directs much of our behavior.
However—and this is most important—the vast majority of our mental activity is nonconscious. Most of our daily comings and goings emerge from and then double back to shape lower and right brain areas that wire us to bodily sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Much of what influences what we believe rationally are those encounters we have via our emotional, physical, non-verbal sensing brain. What we believe about God will be significantly shaped, therefore, by what our bodies (read: sensations, perceptions, feelings, etc.) have experienced. For many of us, our bodies recall events of great comfort and strength when reflecting on our encounter with God. Others’ bodies, however, remember far darker things—the deep wounds, of shame, fear, or abandonment. For them, intimacy is only a manifestation of pain they sense in their very bones.
For Jesus, the announcement of the Kingdom of God was not limited to language. Rather, language enabled his hearers to makes sense (eventually) of everything he was doing with his body. His words were always accompanied by embodied acts of being present with and healing those who knew they needed it. He said as much with his hands as he did with his words. I suspect that, even for those of us who believe that touch is more about danger than deliverance, we wish to God it could be different.
It is likely that sometime in the future, my friend’s son will be tempted to doubt, as we all are, that God loves him, for we are forgetful beings. But I also suspect that his brain will remember not just remarks, but even more so the many images, sensations, feelings and perceptions of that day—not least the confident, gentle, firm touch of so many. The touch of hands whispering his Father’s love in a language that needs no words.
And so I’m wondering, even for those of us for whom the touch of others has been found suspect, where will the hands of healing be found? Your brain is waiting to find out.