Friday, May 22, 2009

Hands On!

In the church we have a sacred practice called laying-on-of-hands to pray and bless. Having just come home from a refresher training about legal and pastoral issues on the dangers of too much touch I offer a cautionary tale.

We have a beautiful handsy blessing practice in the Episcopal church. It’s odd maybe to be doing this sort of thing in a world gone mad about boundaries, no-touch, and the swine flu. Nevertheless we continue to do this in our parish.

Last Sunday was the first time we ever did this with a child, a ten year old boy I’ll call Johnnie.

When people are about to go in for surgery or have a dear one who is seriously ill or even when they are moving away and leaving the community we pray for healing or safety or whatever is requested. The person in need of community support and prayer stands in front of the priest who is celebrating that day, The priest invites those who are able and comfortable to come forward, and gather around the person to focus their hearts in prayer with that person. The priest lays his or her hands on the head of the suppliant and everyone else extends their hands to place them either directly on the shoulders, head or arms of the person asking for prayers. The priest prays out loud and the whole congregation joins into the prayer with their own prayers and with their spirits.

Johnnie was headed for major back surgery to correct scoliosis. The rector asked him if he'd like prayers for healing. He said yes and then asked several times When?

When his Sunday came he stepped forward, stood before the priest with his head slightly bowed but not enough to conceal his bright expectant eyes. Everyone gathered.

We made a chain of hands, lines of hopeful, fearful, trusting, loving energy flowed from all those hands into the boy.

I was there as the assisting priest that day and told Johnnie I would place one of my hands directly on his back in the place where the spinal correction would be effected. He nodded, his crop of dark hair skimming his eyebrows. I thought what a beautiful boy he was.

When I first became a priest and did this blessing I worried about where the right words would come from There are formulaic prayers in our prayer book, but we usually count on the Spirit to give us the best words. And She does!

Spirit-inspired prayers are some of the most moving. Silent touching focused prayers are some of the most moving. They come from many hearts all beating their love into the heart of the one in need.

This day the prayer words were not only eloquent but simple and specific, including blessings for courage and soothing of anxiety for Johnnie’s parents and siblings all there with their hands on their son and brother. I pressed my hand firmly into Johnnie’s back. His little five year old sister did too, her eyes wide open in awe.

This was a holy moment, a community moment, a godly moment. There was enough spirit around and tears and sweetness to guard against both swine flu and the succumbing to the currrent cultural affliction I call boundary paranoia and touch-panic. What price Love?

Everyone knows prayer is no guarantee of outcome but we do it together anyway because it matters to us and it matters to God and it matters to our relationship.

In Johnnie’s case, the surgery went well. He will be home soon. He has a new lap top to keep him from wanting to run and play and get rough and tumble and risk jeopardizing his recovery. His mother and father will need prayers to keep him down. But his deformity will not follow him through his life creating worse and worse pain and giving him a bent body as he ages.

And he will never forget the laying-on-of-hands he received on May, 2009, in the Easter season from the hands of a small Christina community at St. John's Church in Gloucester, Massachusetts —hands of people who didn't all know him well but who all love him well.

Johnnie’s will carry this love in his body for the rest of his life; he will remember this day in his flesh forever.

This is the point of religious community, isn’t it?