Therapeutic Touch

Gretchen Stevens tells how the gentle therapeutic touch, which is offered at her Centre for Complementary Care in Cumbria, so often brings more than the physical or mental relief that her clients are seeking.


This article was first published in the Spring 2005 issue of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

Gretchen Stevens writes that she ‘was born in America a very long time ago, and her very least favourite question at conferences is: “How did you find out that you had a healing gift?”’ The answer, basically, is that the realisation dawned upon her slowly in the same way that other people begin to recognise they have a natural ability to draw, or pick out a tune on a piano, or put words together entertainingly on the page. She doesn't believe that her ability is unique, rather that it's a talent we all possess to a greater or lesser degree, but with which most of us have lost touch. Her approach to healing is informed by her own Christian faith and the discipline of contemplative prayer, but she never proselytises and expects no reciprocal belief from those who come seeking help. People who arrive at the Centre for the first time are often nervous, vaguely expecting something mystical or new-agey. They are always pleasantly surprised by Gretchen's—and indeed the Centre's—relaxed and resolutely down-to-earth attitude. The most common sound issuing from behind the treatment room door is that of laughter.

© Guild of St Raphael

"There is something I need to tell you . . ."

Every client who comes to the Centre for healing by gentle touch is struggling with fear. Sometimes it is terror in the face of death and sometimes low-level anxiety over a condition that is worsening, and always it is the fear that lurks when we feel helpless and out of control. We’re scared when our bodies let us down, when our mental processes go awry, when external forces threaten us.

Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,’ is the understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we do well to heed the ancient words. It is good to know our small place in the scheme of things and right to respect what is beyond our ken. It is healthy, too, to experience fear as alarm, which is why we teach our children the lessons of the Big Bad Wolf before we send them down the garden path alone. ‘When you see the gleaming teeth, head for shelter,’ is sound parental advice. We have, though, to be careful not to scare them to death. Literally. Fear is powerful. Once unleashed it can soon get the better of us, becoming our defining characteristic. It is unhealthy when it dominates our waking lives and pervades our dreams. We are habitual creatures and too soon make that fear our norm. It is hard for us to change the patterns that hold us captive to the awful possibilities of ‘what if’, but healing touch breaks the bonds of fear, just as we have been promised, by the action of perfect love. We don’t do the breaking through of our own volition, but we can open our hearts to allow the in-coming. We can receive it and recognise when it occurs.

Usually that occurrence is a gradual process, which eases tension and gently brings us back to better balance. A hand to hold can be enough to keep us safe until we find again the courage to go forward. Sometimes, however, there is deeper, truer touch than that which passes between two people in the treatment room. That is the moment we go into and beyond the fear and enter the domain of peace. That moment may be fleeting, but it affords us crucial separation from the paralysis of fear. I have heard it described, in nearly identical words, over fifteen years at the Centre by the most diverse, unlikely people who have no idea that what they say has been said just so before. ‘There is something I need to tell you. . .’ When I hear those words, I know what is going to follow. It doesn’t happen every day nor with everyone, but this is how people report what they have glimpsed: a presence, a vision, an intimation of the sacred made real. This is how they introduce epiphany, and the dissolution of fear.

Genuine healing can be a scalding process, which involves feeling considerably and deservedly worse, in ourselves and about ourselves, before we learn to acknowledge the past, forgive it and finally release it. Healing requires facing our fears and inhabiting them, and we do not find that easy. So we are the more surprised when the benison of unconditional love actually and directly touches us. At that point, we can hardly say more than was sung in the old gospel hymn: ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last!’

Often, people who tell me of their transcendent experience have arrived at the Centre as a last desperate resort near the end of a very rough road. Their prayers have not been answered with swift and neat solutions to their problems. Their pain has not been cushioned. Many of their worst fears have already been realised. Theirs is the commonest of the common fate, backs to the wall the only position left to them. It would be pretty offensive, and distinctly unreal, if the Centre sat inviolate in their midst, smiling serenely and making light of the worry and sorrow and mess that make us human. Offering a magic touch to soothe away all care would be a lie, a false promise we could not keep. Healing doesn’t work like that. We are all in the pain and the fear together and we go through it together, neither avoiding nor denying the rock bottom-ness of the abyss, into which we peer together. We are not fearless warriors, nor eternal optimists finding silver linings in each appalling tragedy. But we do find something. Something better. We find realistic hope. We have the ordinary authenticity of suffering love. That will do in place of miracles, and is, I think, its own miracle: the miracle of how grace dazzles through the hurt. The miracle of perfect love casting out fear. The miracle of healing touch that conveys a limitless love.

It happens in the simplest way, and there is no predicting to whom, when or why. A client comes in and lies down on the treatment couch. We put on some classical music and begin the gentle touch that starts the treatment. We talk a little. People may sleep or weep or repose in silence, but usually there is some initial conversation along the lines of, ‘How has your week been? And your sleep? And the pain? Any changes for better or worse?’ The sort of thing that allows a full reply or merely a nod. I can tell by touch whether there is response, if the body is answering the call of the touch. I cannot diagnose nor do I share the sensations that the client feels. Often I sink from interior prayer into a kind of spiritual substrata and the end of the session feels like the return from a far, far country. After approximately 40 minutes, I have travelled around the client’s body like the hands of a clock, and with a kiss on the forehead I leave the room to allow the client ten minutes of peaceful drift. I do not want them to leap at once to their feet and reclaim the responsibilities of the day. If left alone, the healing energy will continue to enfold them in quiet and rest.

It is when I return to bring them back to full consciousness that people speak to me about what occurred while they were lying there undisturbed. It might happen on their first visit, but more usually it is after they have attended several times that the key turns in the lock. The less profound effects that people experience, they will often have mentioned during the sessions as they happen. I don’t know how these sensations of colour, light and fragrance occur, nor do I understand the physical phenomena that routinely accompany healing sessions, such as tingling, or heaviness or heat or cold, but I know they are a ‘normal’ part of the process. What I feel through my fingers is different, a movement in the body akin to water running underground. Sometimes it is more pronounced, and visible, although usually without the client being aware of the little toe waving or the arm flexing or skin rippling in waves. Occasionally there are audible effects too. Tummies rumble regularly, but less frequently joints creak loudly or adhesions separate with a sound like velcro pulling apart.

These phenomena are interesting and sometimes amusing, as are the vivid dreams and recognitions that clients report as their healing develops and intensifies week to week. But there is a deeper, much deeper, underlying meaning to the healing encounter. When I return to the treatment room after a session, generally to find a sleepy soul yawning and stretching, warm and relaxed and free of pain, I may find instead a client wide-eyed and alert. ‘There is something I need to tell you’, they say. The same urgent words, in serious voices as if they can’t think quite how to say what they are bound to tell. At first they will be hesitant, ‘I can’t explain this but . . .’ or ‘I could never tell my doctor . . .’ Then the words come in a rush, ‘Other hands have touched me. When you went to my feet, someone came to stand at my head.’ Or, ‘I felt a presence and thought you had come back into the room. But it wasn’t you holding my hand.’ Or, ‘I was alone and then I wasn’t alone and there were people in front and beside and over me. Well, not actual people, but they were real’. Always there is touch.

Same story, same words, familiar to me but utterly new to them. I know that what they say is genuine, a telling of truth outside their previous experience and understanding. Sometimes they cannot bring themselves to articulate what they saw and felt. It is too private and too precious. It may be hours or days before they ring to say, ‘I have to talk to you. There is something I must say.’ It is brave of them to say it, and probably embarrassing, too. When they elaborate, the memory is clear, distinct and exact. What happened really happened. The best response I can offer is to defer to the superior skills of the guardian angel who intervened to advance their healing. That may be a childlike explanation, but it is the best I can do and chimes with their experience. Even the most cerebral nod in bemused recognition. Experience has taught us both that when we work together in the healing time, our best efforts are still crude, guided imperfectly by intuition and a half-way understanding of whatever instructions we get from whomever we get them. After all, both the toucher and the touched are fearful beings, each trying their best to trust beyond the fear. Our amateur efforts at healing are like attempting a portrait with finger paints, using only thumbs instead of sable brushes. So it does not seem exceptional that occasionally someone has to break into the clumsiness and lend a hand. You know the sort of thing when the teacher who has been patient with a backward student long enough has to mount a rescue before the effort is lost. ‘Not there,’ they say. ‘Not like that! Oh, move over and just let me do it!! Now do you see?’

People who have been touched in this profound and mysterious way may be religious, but also may not be. A few will refer to a figure of Jesus or say that they felt God in the room. Most are more circumspect and talk hesitantly of holiness, something sacred, a spiritual presence. Always the reference is personal. Someone moves and touches and consoles. They tell me later, too, that afterwards, sometimes years after, in moments of fear and danger, the presence returns, precisely as at the first encounter in the Centre. I can only think of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.

So there you have it. What are we talking about? I know only what my clients tell me. I am their reporter. One of them, an older man of great wealth and influence, had just such a visionary episode and afterwards asked, ‘What kind of power is this? I know about the world and the uses of earthly power but this is far beyond and above.’ I think the beginning of an answer may lie in his question. We are talking, I believe, above and beyond the world and the flesh, about revelation, disclosure, a peek behind the veil that separates us from the numinous. A hint of the godly in the place beyond fear. I think those clients have, for brief instants, been physically touched by truth.

That touch brings healing, real and verifiable. The work at the Centre has received wide recognition, not least in outcome research results published in medical journals in America, Europe and the U.K. These results indicate significant benefit in all conditions after four treatment sessions, testimony to what healing can accomplish in the way of enabling a person to repair, restore and maintain good health. Hundreds of clients who have benefited from coming to the Centre speak to the difference this has made to their lives, to their mental, physical and emotional health. It is good work to do. But I know, I know, that none of that is a patch on the real deal, the something secret they sometimes have to tell me. About the alchemy that turns base metal into gold, and fear into shining trust.

Human nature is intransigent. Much of it is dark, and terribly is that darkness revealed in our living nightmares. There is no lasting Utopia in which to seek refuge. We have to bide alone with our fears, in all weathers, knowing what we are. Touch will not render us more, or less, than human, ever frail and always prey to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It can, however, and does, and will, open the door to healing. I see it happen, without fanfare, to ordinary people day after ordinary day. I witness their darkness illumined, their fears dissolved by touch. Thereafter they dwell by grace in safety, poised in the midst of perilous lives. That is what they need to tell me, and perhaps also what we, beset by our own chaotic fears, need to hear.

© Guild of St Raphael