When you think of getting a massage, more than likely you don't envision a priest, nun, minister, or rabbi as the body therapist who will soothe away your tensions. If you've ever signed up for a spiritual retreat, you probably didn't expect massage or energy balancing as part of the program. Yet during the last 20 years, a growing vanguard of North American clergy has not only openly supported working with the body but also become directly involved in hands-on treatment.

They've discovered that such work has a lot to do with spirituality. It helps deepen contemplation and prayer. It can heal psychic wounds and promote integration of mind, body, and spirit. They've noticed that providing nurturing, non-threatening touch, as well as accepting and respecting the body, may encourage a loving relationship with one's self. As feelings of separation and fragmentation transform into a sense of wholeness, there also emerges the possibility of feeling more connected to others, to one's God, and to the universe.

The journey to share the gift of touch and to serve as a conduit for healing wasn't necessarily easy for these religious figures. But once they experienced the power of touch themselves, they decided to make it an integral part of their life and ministry. Sister Rosalind Gefre, a member of the Order of St. Joseph of Carondelet, recalls, "The first time I had a massage, I knew in my heart that's where God had called me to." She pursued it even when there were no sisters "doing such things." Her decision was tolerated but never encouraged. Even worse, when she passed out her massage fliers at a Twin Cities street fair in 1983, some people actually threw them back and laughed at her. "They looked at me like 'you dirty woman, don't you dare touch me.'" Within five years, people were standing in line to be massaged. Sister Rosalind went on to establish a series of massage centers for personal sessions, as well as instruction, in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.

Easing tension and relaxing retreatants physically quiets them down at every level and puts them in a really good place for prayer.

A Protestant interim pastor in Maryland found that ministers would laugh awkwardly when he told them that he also worked as a massage therapist. He thought several things were probably running through their minds: "What kind of a kook is this? What's a preacher doing massaging? Maybe he's a pinko." Sometimes they asked him whether he worked on women, too. They figured that if he did, he massaged through clothing. When he told them he worked on them naked, they were horrified. For such conservative Christians, he says, "The body and the spirit are always at war with one another. They are afraid of their bodies and touch of any kind because they have never come to terms with their own sexuality." He sees massage as a way for people to break down that barrier, redeem the body, and praise God for it.

Other male clergy have reported that it was enlightening to learn that they could touch and be touched by people of the opposite gender without sexual implications. One of them is Zach Thomas, a Presbyterian minister who, while serving as a hospital chaplain, became a massage therapist and now, along with his wife, is a volunteer for the Godchild Project in Guatemala. For most of his life, he had associated spiritual growth only with retreats, Bible study, and churchgoing. Then, in 1983, while attending a conference in Switzerland, a Belgian therapist offered him a massage. He misunderstood and responded that it wasn't appropriate because he was married. She made it clear that she wasn't proposing sex. The way she touched him opened him to an entirely new experience of his body. "I felt subtle energies that were sensual, but they were integrated with the other energies," Thomas recalls. "I realized that my body had many more messages than just sexual ones."

In the case of some individuals with an abusive sexual history, massage has led to healing. A Claretian priest who had been raped discovered a new appreciation of life following massage therapy sessions. His newfound acceptance of his body enabled him to experience Mass and liturgy not as disembodied phrases repeated routinely but as alive and joyful prayer with personal significance.

Because a pastoral counselor who'd been sexually abused felt split off from part of herself, her psychotherapist recommended body therapy. After receiving massages from a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary in her city, she realized that the more she got to know herself through the sessions, the more she was able to embrace all of who she is.

"The awareness I have felt can best be stated by the Psalmist's exclamation, 'O God, we are fearfully and wonderfully made!'" she says. "The more at peace with myself I can be, the more graciously I can relate to other people. I feel more love now." By befriending her body in massage, the counselor also learned to accept blessing and grace just for being. Grace was no longer an abstract concept, but a concrete experience.

"The mystical experience is not flashing lights, clouds descending and so forth," said Jerome Perlinski, who was, before his death, director of East West College, a massage school in Portland, Ore. "It's simply the experience of being at one with the universe, that what is happening now is perfectly right. You can get that from a good massage. If I'm being touched by a centered or spiritual person, then that massage both helps me to be more centered and is an activity of centeredness."

Such centeredness is crucial during spiritual retreats. A Franciscan sister, trained in acupressure who used to direct spiritual retreats in upstate New York, comments that easing the tension and relaxing retreatants physically "quiets them down at every level and puts them in a really good place for prayer." And according to a priest who has directed retreats and administered massage at a Jesuit Renewal Center, moving out of a state of distraction and into a prayerful place is a matter of finding balance between the mind and body by using "the most spiritual of our senses"--touch.

All of the religious dedicated to ministering to the spirit through the body would agree with the late French paleontologist and Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, who said: "Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see. On the contrary, everything is sacred." I would add: including the body. Through it we can experience how sacred physicality is and how spiritual conscious touch can be.

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