Give me a hand, will you?

Chris McDonnell CT June 26th 2020

The simple phrase ‘give me a hand’ is widely understood as a request for assistance, a need for help, a recognition that we cannot manage on our own. Our response to this expression of need is our appreciation that at certain times others depend on us, that others need our help, our time and our love.

The one thing that COVID has taught us is that through the use of our hands, we can help each other. Hard though recent weeks have been, we have managed through the sustained efforts from many sources.  Those who have kept our supermarket shelves stocked with food, delivered by truck drivers who have repeatedly kept supplies on the move from depots across the country have offered their hands in the service of others. And there are many more. All of this sustained through the use of the four fingers and a thumb that function at the end of each arm.

Hands design and manipulate tools, they help us make things, from the detail of a watch mechanism to the massive sky scrapers that form the backdrop of life in our cities.

I wrote these lines some ten year ago

The Talisman of tools

Picking the length of oak board
from the dust dirt of the granary
I held it, sloping to the floor,
to eye its line, to see
where the warp came
and the straight edge drifted away,
making it unusable for the bedroom bookshelf,|
its intended home.

Checking for damage, twist or split,
with one eye closed,|
he would squint along its edge,
nose to wood, pipe in mouth,
the assured eye of the experienced hand,
the daily talisman of tools
who knew by judgement what would fit.

Who, when satisfied, would spit
into work-worn hands,
rub them together with purpose,
and begin.

His strong voice and deliberate gesture
I often hear or see

as now I, in turn, work for them
as he, over many years, once worked for me.


The hard work of an engineer or construction worker can be seen in the rough texture of their scarred skin, worn and damaged over the years through the graft of handling materials. The strength of the grip when a handshake is exchanged tells the story of their daily use.

For a couple who fall in love, holding hands is a first point of intimacy. Seeing a couple walking down the street, hand in hand we recognize something in their friendship, their holding hands is an expression of love. One of the McCartney – Lennon lyrics of the 60s had the simple repeated line, ‘I want to hold your hand’. It is a natural and instinctive reaction to offer the gift of friendship through the gentle touch of holding hands.

The bread that was broken at the Last Supper was certainly passed round the table, handled by the rough and ready hands of fishermen from Galilee. The instruction recorded in the Gospel narrative is to ‘take and eat’. It is with our hands that we take and give, share and consume. What could be more practical than we receive the gift of the Christ in the same manner?

The gesture of hands has been a strong element in the political history of recent decades. Who cannot forget the open hand of the Nazi salute during the rallies of the pre-war 30s years in Europe nor their continued use by the military in the conflict that followed? Look carefully at some current screen footage and you will see that the powerfully emotive gesture it is still not forgotten.

In contrast, the raised clenched fist has become the token of the political Left, is an expression of defiance by workers, in the face of oppression.

One of Henri Nouwen’s early books was entitled ‘With open hands’, an appreciation of gift, one to another. He was truly a man who gave himself with open hands, was always available to others, often at a high personal cost.

During this time of lockdown I have been re-reading one of his final books ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. For many years Nouwen had been enthralled by Rembrandt’s painting which now hangs in the Hermitage Gallery in St Petersburg. Shortly before he died in the mid-90s, he was able to visit the Gallery and sit face to face with this great masterpiece he so much admired. For him, the painting told the story of a journey of searching, of understanding, of appreciation.

In his written account of the Rembrandt he explores the context of each figure in the painting, the Father, the younger and elder sons and the shadowy images of women in the background. In his discussion of the welcome offered by the Father to his wayward son he explores the artist’s portrayal of the Father’s hands on his son’s shoulders. He suggests that each of the hands rest on the young man’s shoulders in different ways, one masculine and one feminine, one gripping the shoulder firmly, the other gently. In this way he recognizes both the Fatherhood and Motherhood of God. He writes – “that gentle caressing right hand echoes for me the words of the prophet Isaiah – can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget you, I shall not forget you. Look I have engraved you in the palms of my hands”.

With our hands we care for each other, soothe each other in times of stress and difficulty, dress ourselves each morning and cleanse ourselves after the work of the day. The hands of old age lose their strength become fragile. They show the toil of years and the hardships of our lives. The stretched skin, the raised veins, the cracked nails, all are evidence of the wear and tear of passing years.

Those hands that were raised in blessing, joined together in greeting and in prayer, bear the signature of their life story. From the small delicate fingers of a new born child, through the years of passage to maturity, to the fragility of old age, our hands tell the narrative of our lives. The saying ‘a safe pair of hands’ says much of a person’s character and reliability.

That is why we have missed the exchange of touch between each other in recent weeks for without words our hands speak of our emotions, our cares and our suffering. The almost-touching hands painted by Michelangelo on the roof of the Sistine chapel speak  clearly of need and of gift.

In his Epilogue to the Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen writes that hands tell “…the story of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing …also a story of safety, rest and of being at home.”

May we always offer the open hand of friendship to those we meet and receive their hand with gratitude in return.


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  1. John Collins says:

    Chris thank you for this wonderfull reflection on Hands and very timely.

  2. Frances Nuyten says:

    Your reflection on “Return of the Prodical Son” is wonderful. This book is without a doubt my favourite book. I have read and re-read it three times and will probably read it again soon.

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