Throughout my life of walking with Jesus of Nazareth, the story in which he reaches out to touch the man with a communicable disease, and in that action heals the man, has had a profound impact on me (Mat 8:1-4). Not only did Jesus seem to have no regard for his own safety, he also appeared to be in breach of certain purity codes (Lev 5:1-3). The invitation to me in the story has been to live in an ethic of love that transcends purity, fear of contamination, and social ostracization, seeking always to embrace and include others on the basis of their humanity, not their condition or circumstances.
When Jesus touched the man with the communicable disease he healed him. The problem for us, in this Covid19 world, is that touching someone runs the high risk of killing them rather than healing them. What then can we do in response to the gospel invitation to transcend the culture of purity and social ostracization with the ethic of embracing love when physically embracing someone might harm them, not heal them?
French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote that we all have certain spiritual needs that are analogous to physical hunger. In other words, we feel the need for what is required for our own healthy spiritual life, our vitality, in the same way we feel the need for freshly baked warm bread when we are hungry for example. She also writes that we are all imbued with the sense of obligation to one another when it comes to fulfilling one another’s spiritual needs, to quite literally feed one another spiritually1. The good news is that we can do this even when physical touch is not possible. We are still able to ‘touch’ one another in spirit.
For Weil, the need for liberty, responsibility, equality, honour, freedom of opinion, security, truth, and dignity, are all basic to our feeling of spiritual vitality. These are not as difficult to bestow on one another as they may seem at first glance. When I go for my morning run I find that I need to weave my way around people in order to maintain physical distance. Feeling this loss, I am making sure to establish personal proximity by making eye contact with those I am avoiding physically. By making eye contact I am implicitly communicating, ‘I see you’, ‘I respect you’, ‘I honour you’. I also smile and say good morning, or offer a word of encouragement to those who are clearly exercising for the first time in a long time. By doing this I very simply communicate, ‘I recognise your dignity’, ‘I offer you my friendship’. These are very simple examples. We can offer so much more by paying careful attention to one another. When we do so, El-roi, ‘the God who sees’ (Gen 16:13), is born in us and imbues our relationships with spiritual vitality.
Dr Christopher Turner (Lecturer in Pastoral Theology and Spiritual Care)
Friday 2 April 2020