A couple of weeks ago I was preparing to serve as deacon at Mass. I was going through my normal pre-Mass ritual of checking the altar, the tabernacle and the ambo to make sure everything was in its proper place to celebrate the Word and the Eucharist. When I finished my check, I went to the choir area to say hello to some of the musicians and cantors who were also preparing for their part in the celebration. As is my custom, I said hello and gave each of them a warm hug – a simple embrace to let them know that I value our friendship and care for each of them.
As I left the choir area and headed to the back of church, an elderly woman gestured for me to come to her. Thinking she may need to have communion delivered to her or be in need of some other type of service I approached her with a smile and asked how I could help. Her comment: “Hey, where’s my hug?” I chuckled and told her “You get two hugs!” We embraced twice and then I continued my way back to the Sacristy with a broad smile on my face. I had just experienced a great lesson of love!
I haven’t always been a “hugger.” That’s not how I was raised. And I especially wasn’t taught to hug people in church. In fact, I remember how uncomfortable I used to feel at the Sign of Peace during Mass. I had to take deep breaths and psych myself up to turn to the person next to me and say “Peace be with you.” But all that changed when I learned three valuable lessons:
- We are created by love
- We are created to love
- We are lovable – every single one of us
I learned that lesson on my ACTS Retreat, a parish-based retreat built on the themes of Adoration, Community, Theology and Service. I’ll never forget the love I felt that weekend and how that experience changed the way I would feel about myself and about others. And that weekend I learned that even men can hug!
I have to admit, we men aren’t the best huggers in the world (we’re still learning). And I laugh whenever I think about the Mass we celebrated at the end of our first ACTS Retreat. One of my friend’s daughters commented, after witnessing those who had been on retreat hug while exchanging the Sign of Peace. Her observation: “Men hug loud!” Yep, we tend to do that, slapping each other a little too loudly until we learn that hugging is an embrace of affection, not a contact sport!
I’ve changed over the years and and have learned to love the value of giving … and receiving hugs. As I joked to someone recently, “Heck, I’ll hug just about anything moving less than 50 miles-per-hour!”
Hugs are great. Hugs are healthy. Hugs are necessary. But are we hugging enough?
I attended another retreat some years ago and the retreat leader told the story of how St. Francis, expressing his love for God and His children, was bold enough to hug a leper. The retreat leader then encouraged us to reflect on the “lepers” in our lives who need hugs and other reminders that they are created by love, created to love, and are loveable. The retreat leader used the example of HIV Positive patients he had ministered to. I thought of others in my life.
One time when I was preparing to conduct a Children’s Liturgy I was reading the information contained in the leader’s manual. That week’s Mass readings focused on the love of the Father. The manual reminded us that the image of God as “father” is not always a healthy one for children. Many young people have had negative experiences with their biological fathers (e.g., from alcohol, abuse, drugs, etc.). That hurt my heart as I thought about the wonderful experiences I had with my father. To me, these children were like lepers, disconnected from society and missing an important influence of love in their life.
I continue to think about the “lepers” in my life who need a hug – who need someone to reach out to them and touch them, or speak to them, or encourage them to let them know the Father’s love. For me, it’s the people I find difficult to deal with, or the people who have offended me, or the people who hurt or offend others. These people can either be treated as outcast “lepers” or be shown love, forgiveness, and kindness. That’s the way I want to live my life. That’s the way I want to share God’s love. But sometimes we need the simple reminder of a solitary person who sees God in us and asks: “Hey, where’s my hug?”
Be at peace and know that you are loved!
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