Many years ago when I was still a Jesuit novice, I was assigned to work for a month as an orderly in the charity spinal ward of National Orthopedic Hospital. The nurses were overworked and counted on us to help them out with the non-medical care of the patients. The patients, whose beds were crammed into four wards, had many needs because they were all paralyzed either from the waist down or worse, the neck down.
It was a physically demanding job that kept me on my feet all day. The work ranged from moving the patients in their beds, hosing them for their baths, cutting their nails or hair, running to the store downstairs to buy stuff for them, or simply listening to their stories. After about a week, I felt that I had gotten to know all the patients quite well–all of them, that is, except Jimmy.
Jimmy was an emaciated paraplegic who hardly spoke a word. Half-naked he sat in his bed in a far corner of the ward and seemed to spend all day staring into space. When you spoke to him, he simply stared back at you through the most dishevelled hair and with two of the blankest eyes I had seen.
The nurses, who already had more than enough on their plate, all kept away from him, and without saying as much, warned me to do the same. “He has scabies!” one of them murmured. “Contagious!” another added in a significant tone. For reasons you can imagine and understand, I had absolutely no problem following expert advice.
But one afternoon, as I was passing Jimmy’s bed (as quickly and quietly as I could!), I accidentally looked his way, and our eyes met. And I don’t know if it was his eyes–or his hair–but to this day, I still don’t know what possessed me to say what I did. I asked him, “Do you want a haircut?” And to my surprise, I got a response: He nodded. “Oh, ok! Tomorrow then!” I said as I rushed away, regretting it already.
That night I lay in bed awake. As novices, we cut one another’s hair, and though I learned how to do it, I was one house barber that my co-novices avoided. But of course the last thing I was worried about was giving Jimmy a bad haircut. I was just scared of touching him, getting some of his itch mites on me, and catching his scabies!
Then I remembered the famous story of how Saint Francis Xavier forced himself to swallow a bit of pus from a leper’s infested wound just to overcome his revulsion–and the story both repulsed and shamed me. There and then I made the decision that I would force myself to touch Jimmy to overcome my fear–and if only to avoid resorting to any device as disgusting as the saint’s!
And so the next morning I showed up near Jimmy’s bed with a towel, a comb, and a pair of scissors. “Time for a haircut!” I announced as cheerfully as I could. But before I even cut a single strand of his hair, I took a deep breath and placed my hand gently–hesitantly–on Jimmy’s bare shoulders. The touch startled him, making me realize that it was probably because he was no longer used to human touch. And just like that, as his face swam gently in my tears, my fear and revulsion disappeared.
As I cut Jimmy’s hair, I realized just how important human touch could be and what a difference it could make. But more than that, I experienced the power of God’s touch. For when I finally mustered enough courage that day to bring myself to touch this scabies-infested man, God reached down from His heaven and touched–and healed–my leprous heart.