Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tactus Divinus and the Feast of the Incarnation

I was a math-phobic high school freshman.  My fourteen-year-old self enjoyed and excelled in social studies, language, and art classes, but was much more hesitant with to quadratic equations and trigonometry.  In the evenings, I settled into the living room couch with my heavy textbook, notebook, pencil and graphing calculator to tackle math homework. I sat next to my father, who offered me patient assistance with my polynomials.  Each evening, I grew more confident as I went along with the assignment, needing less and less help from him.
“You don’t really need my help,” Dad told me once as we sat side by side while I worked through a page of Algebra I problems.  “You just need my shoulder.”  
“Dad’s shoulder” became our shorthand for the reassurance of his physical presence beside me, calming my algebra anxieties.  He was right:  for the most part, I didn’t really need much assistance with the math itself, but his quiet accompaniment bolstered me, especially during my first weeks in high school.
 I remember the powerful presence of “Dad’s shoulder” in the preparation for Christmas, the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.   The formal title of the celebration we prepare for in Advent is “the Feast of the Incarnation.”  Incarnation means enfleshment.  It’s the same Latin root as the Spanish word for meat, carne.  At Christmas we celebrate God becoming human, flesh, meat.  God, in Jesus, has skin in the game.  Christians worship a God present not in abstract philosophical ideas or solely through sacred texts, but in human form. 
Gina and I learned at a lecture by Fr John Vidmar, OP about the particular significance the Incarnation has for us Dominicans.  St. Dominic preached against the Albigensian heresy’s strict dualist ideas.  For the Albigensians, matter was bad, spirit was good.  The body was bad, the soul was good. Earth was bad, heaven was good.  In contrast, St. Dominic preached the Gospel, emphasizing the goodness of creation.  It is said that Dominic walked barefoot and singing – I like to imagine him glorying in the beautiful French countryside, the pleasurable exertion of his muscles as he traversed the Piedmont, the simplicity of a hearty meal after a day of walking and preaching.  In contrast to the Albigensian heresy which denied the body, Dominicans have inherited a tradition which appreciates it and affirms the Incarnation.  The body is not an impediment to encountering God, but rather a gift which mediates our encounter with God. 
These Advent musings on the Dominican appreciation of Incarnation took on another dimension after hearing my co-novice Gina, wonder out loud about using touch in prayer. She coined the term “tactus divinus” – holy touch.  In one of our classes, we’d studied lectio divina (literally “holy reading”)– meditatively praying with Scripture.  I had facilitated a reflection day which included prayer prompts on visio divina – (literally “holy seeing”).  So, Gina said, why not tactus divinus?  
Jeannine Pitas prays with a mosaic of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (photo: Rhonda Miska).

Both Gina and I enjoy spending reflection day time at the Basilica Cathedral, which is just a short walk from the CDN and is filled with stunning religious art which inspired Gina’s reflection on tactus divinus.  The first time I attended Mass there, I was deeply moved to see a woman praying with great reverence before a mosaic image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.   Her arm outstretched, she had her hand flat across the Mary’s heart.  It was as if she connected her own unspoken intentions to Jesus and Mary in that image, transmitted not through words but through touch.
That same day at the basilica, I walked past a large bronze statue of the Pieta – Mary holding the crucified body of her Son.  Another woman had her hand in Mary’s hand and she stood, head bowed, in silent fervent prayer.  It was a moment of great reverence and intimacy. The woman united her grief with Mary’s grief.  
"Pieta" at the Cathedral Basilica in St Louis (photo: Rhonda Miska)

After she left, I stood where she stood, and placed my hand in Mary’s hand – still warm from the woman’s touch.  I prayed for the mother of Heather Heyer, who had recently been killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, and for all mothers grieving children lost to violence.  Since that day, I realized there are several places on the statue where the metal has been rendered shiny by touch: not just Mary’s hand, but the wounds on Christ’s side, hand and foot.  The Basilica Pieta statue has been a place of tactus divinus prayer not just for me and the woman I witnessed, but for many, it seems.  
"Pieta" detail (photo: Rhonda Miska)

No image, mosaic, icon, or statue has power in and of itself, of course.  As incarnational people, though, tactus divinus connects with our transcendent God through our senses, not just through words and ideas. Visual art that we can engage with our own bodies can draw us in to prayer not just with our intellect and heart, but with our flesh.  Like my father’s shoulder which quelled my algebra anxieties, tactus divinus gives a reassuring felt sense of God with us.   And tactus divinus connects us viscerally to the astonishingly good news of Christmas: God is present to us in the Incarnation of Jesus, and present to us in the goodness of our own bodies, created in God’s image. 
From all of us at the CDN, we wish you a joyful celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation.