In these fraught days of Ebola anxiety and debates over appropriate responses, I often find myself harking back to the summer of 2010, when I spent eleven weeks serving as a full-time Chaplain Resident (or intern) in a local hospital.
One evening, I was summoned to visit a woman I’ll call “Elaine,” a patient who was isolated due to her highly compromised immune system. She had been in the hospital for several days and was lonely. When I arrived at Elaine’s room, a sign on the door instructed all visitors to wear disposable gloves, a disposable paper gown, and a surgical mask. I dutifully donned all three, crossed the threshold, and sat down in a chair near Elaine’s feet. (Even with all of my protective gear, I was not supposed to sit any closer.) We spent well over an hour together, initially discussing Elaine’s immediate concerns—her illness and her family—before the conversation gradually deepened, unfolding into a gentle exploration of her life, her spiritual mentors, and her religious beliefs.
When Elaine became emotional, I wanted to reach out and touch her hand, but I resisted the urge out of a desire to keep her safe. I also knew that any proffered gestures of comfort ultimately would prove unsatisfying, for my examination glove would intervene and prevent Elaine from fully experiencing the warmth of my skin. Once again, I was reminded of touch’s crucial role in human connection and healing. As Time magazine noted in a recent piece about the Ebola crisis in Africa, “It’s strange to be in a place where you can’t touch anything: no shaking hands, no comforting a woman whose mother has just died, no tap on the back…[to] get someone’s attention.”
Reflecting on my visit to Elaine, I am struck by an interesting incongruity: while I remember only the broadest parameters of our conversational content, I recall every instance of physical contact that occurred during our interaction. Perhaps this is because I ended up touching Elaine only once. As I stood to leave the room at the close of my visit, I lightly placed my hand upon her blanketed ankle for a few seconds as I said goodbye. In response to my signal of connection and farewell, Elaine leaned forward to take my purple-gloved fingertips. We both smiled as I reminded Elaine to sanitize her hands. She playfully offered a military salute before reaching for the plastic bottle on her bedside table.
Outside of a single brief moment, Elaine and I shared no physical touch. For most of our visit, I attempted to convey care and concern solely through my eyes—the only parts of me that were not shrouded. It was an odd, unsettling experience. Even as Elaine and I discussed her innermost beliefs, hopes, and disappointments, our intimacy was mediated by the thin paper of a surgical mask and the nitrile rubber of examination gloves. In order to care for Elaine, I had to keep my distance.
But isn’t that what the whole of ministry is—the pastoral mediation of distance and intimacy? When ministers are too far removed from the recipients of their care, detachment prevents the development of trust. But when ministers are too close to the recipients of their care, enmeshment proves unsafe.
Furthermore, doesn’t spirituality itself require similar equilibrium between healthy distance and reassuring intimacy? Such a balance enables us to explore the fingerprints of God, as it were, throughout our lives, our relationships, and the whole of creation without becoming—for those of us who aren’t full-time mystics—fully absorbed into the divine.
Ministry is a quirky vocation—perhaps especially in success-oriented America—because it calls upon its practitioners (both lay and ordained) to live and work in such close proximity to failure. Of course, ministers certainly are privy to moments of profound success and joy. We marry couples, we baptize babies and adults, and we encourage people in their journeys toward God. That said, those experiences are counterbalanced by the heavy weight of humanity’s shadow. We witness the dissolution of interpersonal relationships. We listen as people confess their mistakes and grieve their disappointments. We sit with dying individuals and accompany them as their bodies fail and then, eventually, stop.
Sometimes we do these things well, and sometimes we do them poorly. But through it all, ministers—unlike other caregivers—are granted intimate access to people’s psychological, spiritual, and corporeal selves. Doctors and nurses possess access to people’s bodies, of course, but they rarely have the chance to develop deep, long-term interpersonal relationships with their patients. Meanwhile, mental health counselors and clinicians possess knowledge of their clients’ minds and souls—but they rarely have the opportunity to physically touch a dying person’s head while offering a blessing, or to take a weeping family member’s hand in prayer.
At its core, Christian ministry is not only spiritual in nature, but also a vocation of embodiment. This is a tremendous privilege, for our material bodies permit us to act as God’s hands in the world. Because we ourselves are embodied spirits, we can offer care and nurture to the embodied spirits that surround us. We close the eyes of parishioners who have died. We fill our cupped hands with water and gently pour it over babies’ heads. We hold adults’ shoulders as we guide them into the shallow depths of baptismal pools. We mix oil and ashes together for Ash Wednesday’s blessing. We lift up bread at communion tables and feel it break apart in our hands.
Halfway through the second decade of the twenty-first century, I find myself wondering about the future of this embodied ministry. Is it possible to translate our heritage of ‘digit’-al ministry, which takes place in a material world of physical gathering spaces and embodied communities, into a future of “digitally-integrated ministry,” which, according to Elizabeth Drescher and Keith Anderson, occurs not only in the material world, but also in the online world of binary code, wired social spaces, and online relationships? If so, how do we undertake the translation? What might our communities of translation look like?
How do we move into the future without losing the best elements of the past? As we engage in digitally-integrated ministry that transcends the divide between the material and digital worlds, how do we maintain the tenderness of person-to-person connection—of hand touching hand, of rituals communally spoken? What can we create that will allow the intimacy of embodied community to be shared with an ever-widening circle of people, some of whom are not physically present?
When I visited with Elaine, a paper gown and rubber gloves mediated our interaction. They permitted her to feel only the pressure of my hand, not the sensation of my skin touching hers. But they also protected her. As we journey into the world of digitally-integrated ministry, we will need to figure out how to live more fully into new modes of mediation that prohibit direct touch even as they encourage healthy engagement among embodied humans across global networks. We will need to learn how to mediate distance and intimacy in new venues.
We know that the digits at the end of our hands can send messages of love, care, and concern to others over a network of digital links, and we know that hands on the other end of that network can receive those messages. But we must ensure that such digitally-mediated connections also leave room for the types of shared sensate experiences—the touch of skin upon skin, the movement of air during conversation—that remind us of our mutual, shared embodiment, which brings us closer to God.
As we work together as The BTS Center community, I look forward to using my digits to connect with yours through this newly re-mediated, digitally-integrated space. And I hope to meet you in person, as well.