"I have always had a warm feeling for the father of the prodigal son in the Bible parable," reflects a man. "When the prodigal finally came home, the father did not wait in the door with a prim word of welcome and a reluctant handshake. He `ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.' "

This father instinctively knew what we all know, that touch can create an atmosphere of affection, of understanding, and even of forgiveness, that goes far deeper than could any words. Each of us has woven into the fabric of his being a profound yearning for the softest, and most loving of touches, for our souls - that deep, inner core of all human beings - have a need for validation, for completion, and for the healing that comes from such touch.Whether it be a light touch to the shoulder, the delicate ruffling of someone's hair, an engaging hug or a kind touch on the arm, touching - gently and tenderly - is soul food. There may even be, in fact, an actual transfer or flow of energy from one soul to another when, through touch, one person focuses on another with intensity and awareness. And that energy can have a soothing or healing power, to which Marta Korwin-Rhodes, a concert pianist, attests. Korwin-Rhodes, who was in Warsaw when the city was besieged by the Nazis in World War II, was a volunteer nurse in a hospital, caring for the wounded. She tells of this event:

"Late one night, going through the wards, I noticed a soldier whose face was buried in a pillow," she recalls. "In his agony, he was sobbing and moaning into the pillow so that he would disturb no one. How could I help him? I looked at my hands. If I could transmit vibrations in harmony through the piano, why could I not transmit harmony directly without an instrument? When I took the boy's head in my hands, he grabbed them with such force I thought his nails would be embedded in my flesh. I prayed that the harmony of the world would come to alleviate his pain. His sobs quieted. Then his hands released their grip, and he was asleep."

Korwin-Rhode's touch eased the soldier's pain and was a means of conveying love to him, even though he was a stranger.

Although touch may not always produce such dramatic results, its impact is often powerful. Awareness of touch, and its power, even, can bring a new vibrancy to the most commonplace experiences. "I have just touched my dog," wrote young Helen Keller in her diary. "He was rolling on the grass with pleasure in every muscle and limb. I wanted to catch a picture of him in my fingers, and I touched him lightly as I would cobwebs. But lo, his body revolved, stiffened and solidified into an upright position, and his tongue gave my hand a lick. He pressed close to me as if he were fain to crowd himself into my hand. He loved it with his tail, with his paw, with his tongue. If he could speak, I believe he would say to me that paradise is attained by touch."

As Keller's poignant description illustrates, love is the climate in which all living things flourish, and sometimes even a single touch can evoke that atmosphere. It is, in fact, the capacity to project concern through touch and other means that lies at the heart of all deep and lasting human relationships. Touch, the most universal of languages, however, is perhaps the most powerful and trusted means of conveying love, for loving touch does not lie. And it is sometimes the surprise element in the emotion of being touched that accounts for the fact that very small gestures can precipitate major changes in relationships and feelings.

Touching transcends the space between self and another person when words are hard to find, when they aren't enough, when there are no words; or, when someone wants to share joy, show support, or let another experience his or her understanding and caring. Touching is an embrace from the heart, creating warmth and support, and, at times, a feeling of comfort, or security and safety. As well, touch and closeness quietly equal each other.

But touch must be respectful for, at times, although touching is of extraordinary value, because of some life trauma, or because of cultural conditioning, some people may experience touch as uncomfortable or touch may cause feelings of distress or fear.

A surgeon tells of his discovery - on the night of his own surgery, and the early morning hours of pain and fear that followed - of the true meaning of the human touch. Uncomfortable with personal touch, he nevertheless had no problem with bodies on the operating table, for they were asleep and he focused on a bone or a blood vessel, engrossed in the surgical task instead of the human being. With his patients, his touch was always impersonal, professional, brief and to the point. Nothing else.

It was a nurse who taught him his profound lesson regarding touch. Going through her routine, her paces, she headed out the door, only to spontaneously turn around, go to the sink and moisten a clean washcloth with which she quietly wiped his unshaven face. Her only words? "This must be hard for you."

The surgeon's eyes filled with tears as he realized that someone he didn't even know had taken the time to acknowledge him as human as she touched him in a "real" way with her precious words and her hands. "For a moment," he says, "she became God's hands."

And he reflects of his own profound change in perception: "Now it is the scripture, `Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,' that runs through my mind," he says, as he resolves never again to touch just a body. Rather, he says, forevermore, "I will touch a human being."