To Touch is to Give Life
In the mid 15th century, local marble was quarried for use in the beautiful cathedral of Florence, Italy. Such a project demanded the highest quality stone, so naturally each was carefully scrutinized. One particularly large slab failed the inspection and was rejected. Trying to salvage it, the owners allowed a sculptor to carve it but he soon abandoned the project; there were just too many flaws in the marble. For 25 years it languished in a courtyard.
Then in 1499, a 24 year-old Florentine artist nicknamed Il Divino (“the divine one”) saw the marble and was inspired to give it a try. After receiving the owners’ permission he brought it to his workshop and spent the next five years immersed in his work: Cutting, chiseling, and polishing the marble. When finished, he stunned the world. From this flawed and once-discarded slab the artist Michelangelo had carved what would become his best-known work: the statue of David.
We cannot know if Michelangelo was thinking about his masterpiece when he said, “To touch is to give life,” but we do know that touch is a very powerful sense; so powerful that it can heal. Scientists have found that people of all ages who are regularly touched tend to be less anxious, recover from illness more quickly, feel safer and more nurtured. On the other hand, people who are deprived of touch tend to feel lonely, more depressed, and even angry at the world.
Few would be more touch-deprived than the lepers of the ancient world. Not only quarantined and outcast, they were to drive away anyone who might come too near. Notice though that lepers such as the one in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel account doesn't do this; rather, Mark says that he came to Jesus (Mark 1:40). He didn't cry “unclean” but he did plea, begging Jesus to free him from the illness that encased him like invisible marble, stripping him of human dignity and isolating him from any meaningful contact with society.
Jesus, the truly Divine One, showed the leper and the world exactly what it means to touch and give life. For the first time in perhaps a very long time, someone touched him. Not just anyone, but the only One who could release him from the solitary confinement of his disease.
In some ways the leper stands in contrast to us. Disease afflicted him on the outside but inside beat a clean heart. Far from forsaking the living God, he heard his voice and sought Jesus out in total faith. As for us, we must examine ourselves and ask if we are clean on the outside but inside suffer from a hardened heart. The Author of Hebrews gives us a few warning signs: testing God either by acting as if our salvation depends on what we do or by presuming that God will be merciful despite our lack of contrition; spiritual laziness by failing to seek encouragement daily; and doubt, when we no longer hold as true what God has revealed (Hebrews 3:7-14).
Whatever sins keep us from God and each other, remember: To touch is to give life. Whether it’s the touch of water on our head, chrism on our hands, hands laid on head, or his own body, blood, soul, and divinity in our hands or on our tongue, God touches and heals us in every sacrament. Part of the healing grace comes to us through the building up of the virtues, not least of which is perseverance. As part of the cardinal virtue of fortitude, perseverance enables us to endure despite any and all difficulties.
It took Michelangelo years of dedicated work – perseverance, if you will – to carve from a rejected marble slab the masterpiece, David. It may take a long time and much perseverance to carve from our hardened hearts the masterpiece that God created from all eternity but if we persevere in prayer and action, God's touch will bring it to life.