In Leo Tolstoy’s story “Master and Man,” Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov is a well-to-do Russian landowner intent on outdoing his competitors. He has his eye on some land just a few miles from his estate. Despite the danger of a threatened winter storm, he tells his trusted servant Nikita to prepare the sledge, and they set out on a journey to a nearby town that should take only a few hours.
Vasili Andreevich is full of himself. He is greedy, and a cheat. He pays Nikita neither a fair wage nor what he has promised, though, ironically, he thinks of himself as Nikita’s benefactor. Nikita is a laborer and an alcoholic. Drink has led him to the brink, and his wife has left him. Despite this, he is the antithesis of his master, easygoing and caring and patient with all the knavery dealt him.
With vivid detail, Tolstoy describes how the pair get lost several times and are then stuck in the snow, forced to spend the night exposed to the elements. Vasili Andreevich, of course, takes the best place – in the sledge – while Nikita quietly huddles under a blanket in the snow.
Eventually, in desperation and panic, the master climbs onto his horse and rides away, leaving the man alone to die. Reckoning neither with himself nor with death, Vasili Andreevich rides blindly through the blizzard only to find himself back at the sledge where Nikita now lies freezing.
Believing he is going to die, Nikita asks tearfully that his master pay his family his remaining wages. Something suddenly comes over Vasili Andreevich. He turns up his sleeves and begins raking the snow off Nikita and out of the sledge. Untying his girdle, he opens his fur coat, pushes Nikita down, and lies down on top of him, covering him with his whole body, “which glowed with warmth.” Lying against Nikita, face down, he no longer hears the whistling of the wind, but only Nikita’s breathing.
“There, and you say you are dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way.” Tears come to Vasili Andreevich’s eyes, but with them also “a peculiar joy such as he had never felt before.”
“That’s our way!” he keeps saying to himself. And straining his ears, he feels joy in hearing Nikita breathing. “Nikita is alive, so I too am alive!” he thinks, as he feels his remaining life pass out of him into Nikita. And indeed, in the morning, just seventy yards from the road and half a mile from the village, Nikita awakens under his master’s dead body.
“Master and Man” contains all the essential features of a great story. The physical setting – a great storm – houses the deeper story, which examines the social devices that pit man against man. It is not the ferocious blizzard that Vasili Andreevich fights but the fierce divide, which he has embraced and benefited from, that society forces upon us. “That’s our way” is an indictment of social practices that separate and dehumanize us.
These two very different men, divided by social custom, are brought together by the threat of death. But their physical embrace reveals their deeper union. They are alive together precisely because they are bound to each other when Vasili Andreevich finds life by giving it to another – literally, bodily, tangibly. He becomes truly a man, not a master, finding “the real thing” that sets him free.
I cannot help but think of our current situation. We, too, have been thrown off course by a relentless storm. Like the characters in Tolstoy’s story, we’re in this storm together, but we’re not sure how to be together in it.
Covid-19 has disrupted our lives, and our response to it has dislocated us – existentially and literally. Despite many heroic deeds of self-sacrifice, despite coordinated efforts, despite having to fight a common enemy, we are isolated from each other just to stay safe and alive. But staying alive and being alive are not the same thing.
Keeping ourselves apart physically, while necessary to contain the virus, has come at a great cost. Digital communications and other modes of human contact cannot completely satisfy our need to be physically together. Even as countries gradually reopen, the new conditions that keep us from relating to each other in all the ways we used to leave us at a loss for the connection we still crave.
The language of being human is tactile – working, eating, singing, dancing, laughing, and crying together.
Educators know this; they see the effects of “Zoom fatigue” in themselves and their students. The elderly know it as well, especially those now alone in care facilities, where many are dying not only of Covid-19 but also of suicide, “deaths of despair” prompted by lack of human interaction. All of us need human presence – the touch that makes us feel noticed, close to each other, and validated. We are not just talking heads. The language of being human is tactile – working, eating, singing, dancing, laughing, and crying together.
In his book Fearfully and Wonderfully, physician Paul Brand tells how, through working with leprosy patients, he came to realize that of all the gifts he could give them, “the one they value most is the gift of being touched. We don’t shrink away. We love them with our skin, by touch.” As Brand explains, touch offers an even more basic, direct perception than sight or hearing. It connects us more powerfully than words. It plays a critical role in parent-child relationships right from the start, and it binds us together in community. Even from strangers, a gentle pat or a firm handshake reduces the feeling of social exclusion.
As a first-year seminarian, what I learned most about pastoring was not in the classroom but in the hallway. Vernon Grounds, who was then president at Denver Seminary, demonstrated the pastor’s touch. Though diminutive in stature, every time he saw me in the hallway he’d come up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, sometimes getting me in a jovial headlock, and say: “I’m glad to see you!” Sometimes we would talk, often we didn’t. It didn’t matter. What mattered was his physical gesture of love. I was not alone. I belonged. My life mattered.
Of course, touching has its limits. Because of rampant sexual abuse and harassment, necessary boundaries have been put in place for pastors, teachers, coaches, childcare workers, medical professionals, and others, curtailing inappropriate physical expressions of affection. Lore Ferguson Wilbert’s recent book Handle with Care helpfully addresses some of these tricky areas, suggesting ways we can be intentional about preserving human touch while still respecting healthy guardrails. This will become all the more important as we emerge from the first wave of the pandemic with further necessary restrictions on close contact.
After all, God made us physical beings and, what’s more, in Christ came in the flesh and dwelt right in our midst. “We declare to you what was from the beginning,” writes the apostle John, “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1). God is tangibly with us; he reveals himself as close, personal, and approachable, and fills our senses with amazement and joy.
Jesus literally touched and was touched by those around him. His hands touched the blind man’s eyes, the ears of the deaf, the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law who lay dying with fever, the skin of lepers, the legs of the lame. His touch transmitted healing power. He reached out to sinners and dined with them, all because of a love that wants to heal and restore – reconnecting us to God and to each other. In John 13 we read how Jesus wanted to show his disciples the fullness of his love. What did he do? He washed their feet – the dirtiest, most unhygienic part of their bodies – a deed only slaves performed.
“Christ has no hands but ours.”
At the end of his book, Dr. Brand tells of German students who helped rebuild a bombed-out English cathedral after World War II. When it came to restoring the statue of Jesus, they managed to repair everything except the hands, which had been completely destroyed. After a great deal of discussion, the workers decided to leave the statue as it was, without hands. They left the following inscription, a quotation from Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no hands but ours.”
What Christ modeled, he wants us to embody. This is the church’s calling. Our task is to be Christ’s body in the world, his physical presence together – caring, healing, and welcoming others into the arms of fellowship.
What does church look like when we are not able to meet as large congregations? When the government ordered everyone to stay home, my wife and I were staying in the house of friends for three months while they were away in Spain. They had to rush home early and quarantine themselves. We would have to move out. And who would take care of them? Amazingly, another couple nearby asked if we would move into their house with them. They were concerned that both we and our friends from Spain were properly situated. We took them up on their offer, and came up with a plan of how we would help each other if any of us got sick. We’d shop for our quarantined friends and talk with them through their glass door. The rest of us would share evening meals, work in the yard together, deliver food to neighbors, and pray and read scripture together. We would weather the storm together, and be the church for one another.
Whatever shape it takes, love is most visible and real when it is incarnate in everyday life. This way, as Jesus showed us, is concrete: it bears burdens; it reaches out a hand; it touches us in our need. “Love one another,” Jesus told his disciples. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Only then, Jesus said, will the world recognize us as his followers.