I am a fairly private person; but I do like nice hugs. I grew up in a home that involved so much intentional love and affection that I came to see it as a normal part of any loving relationship. I’m pretty sure I startle my friends sometimes by saying such affectionate things; but they endure, and many of them claim to appreciate a nice hug, too.
I know there are plenty of people who have experienced unhealthy or abusive touch; in fact, I’m one of them. I also know that the way to heal those wounds is usually through healthy touch, in relationships of trust.
Tragic findings from orphanages years ago showed that in addition to smaller brains and delayed development, up to 40% of infants will die if not held lovingly and often. And we never outgrow this need; study after study shows the benefits of loving hugs, from positive sense of self to conflict resilience to stronger immune systems. Women apparently benefit even more from daily loving hugs, which reduce stress and improve heart health and longevity.
But these days… well, here we are: in order to keep one another safe – to save lives – we cannot give a hug, squeeze a shoulder, or even shake a hand. It’s… awful.
Sometimes this Covid journey – begun so many months ago, and stretching out so much longer than we’d expected or hoped – makes me think of the Hebrews wandering in the desert. Forty days, forty years – how long?, we cry. Jobs lost. Evictions. Family businesses closed. Healthcare lost. Savings gone. Sexual predator landlords. Lives – more lives – lost. How long?
A friend recently asked me to write a prayer to offer my faith community; part of a prayer series specifically for solace during this long wilderness journey. One of the lectionary scriptures for the week describes a sacrifice – the blood of a precious lamb – to save lives. Another talks of gathering; that we never have to wonder if a Spirit of Love dwells in our midst: whether we can clasp hands or not – whether we can hug or not – when we gather in loving purpose, a powerful force is present.
The power of gathering. Can you feel it? Love is not limited by our ability to touch. Or by time, or species, or absence. Even spending a few minutes remembering loving touch can change our brains, our body chemistry, and renew our sense of joy and connection. Even looking at images of loving touch has a similar effect – although we may need to grieve, too. My sister has written elsewhere about the healing power of loving self-touch. Pets, too – many precious animals’ lives have been saved by the boom in pet adoptions these past few months. They’ve saved our lives, too. For I am convinced, writes Paul, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all Creation, will be able to separate us from Love [Rom 8:38-9].
I am convinced, too. And if we don’t have a partner or a puppy – sometimes we can also turn to other precious kindred. Apparently, hugging a tree for five minutes a day is a powerful practice. This kind of ‘forest bathing’ is so effective that more and more countries around the world are incorporating it into their national health programs, particularly since Covid.
What if the trees have been there all along – just… waiting? Waiting for the moment when we finally realize how much we need them – really need them? Streams of tears flow from my eyes, weeps the psalmist; yet you are near. Because what if – whenever we gather, with ancestors, with memories, with the sacred, sacrificial cross alive within each tree – healing Love is there?
by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee
[Lectionary: Ex 12:1-14; Ps 119; Mt 18:15-20]
Is it true?
that whenever we gather
a Spirit of Love dwells?
My heart aches to gather
to clasp hands
So I rest my hand against a Rock
I kneel down and touch the Soil
I lean against a Tree
in a Spirit of Love
O Spirit that dwells deep within and all around
we offer this sacrifice
not to clasp hands
not to hug
We paint it on our doorposts
as we weep
for the suffering
Gather our tears, we pray
Weave them with the stars and seeds and songbirds
a Mighty Quilt of comfort
to cradle us in our Covenant
that binds us and sets us free
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee does Climate Resilience Chaplaincy in the Boston area. She recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology and she is an adjunct professor for Wesley Theological Seminary. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.