With open hands

Chris McDonnell 

Sometimes people you have never met face to face have an influence in your life that is hard to measure.

It might be a family member, maybe a great Grandma, who died before you were born but whose name and life has run bright as oral DNA through the thread of your family tree, always talked about, respected and held in high regard, especially as an example to young ones. Their influence pervades our lives even though our times are very different. Pointers and patterns remain.

It might be a political figure who through their commitment to the public life of a nation has greatly influenced our own lives. We haven’t met them, but their very presence and activity has shaped our own immediate world.

You can, I am sure, think of many other examples from within your own experience.

One such person for me was the Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen, who died twenty one years ago, in September 1996. Nouwen was ordained for the Archdiocese of Utrecht on July 21, 1957 but spent most of his life in North America, working in the field of clinical psychology, where he taught in both Yale and Harvard. A charismatic teacher, he was to become famous for his many books and it was in the printed pages of his work that I met and valued him. One such book, dating originally from 1971 involved Nouwen’s sharing with a group of students the experience of prayer. It was reprinted in 1994 with a beautiful balance of black and white images accompanying the words- “With Open Hands.”

With gentle simplicity and challenging insight Henri Nouwen invites us to embark on a prayerful journey, to release our tightly clenched fists and open our hands to God”

We exchanged a number of letters and I shared with him a few of my own words, when out of the blue, a signed copy of ‘With Open Hands’ arrived in my letter box from his home in Toronto. Now a treasured, well-thumbed book, it is greatly valued. There is no space here to go through the many publications that carry his name. No matter. If you are unfamiliar with his writing but see his name in a bookshop, buy the book and be surprised by the joys, honesty and at times painful journey of a fellow pilgrim.

The metaphor of the open-hands, clenched-fist is very pertinent to our present times. A few days back we saw pictures of Francis at Al Azhar mosque in Cairo where he embraced the mosque’s Grand Imam, Ahmad al-Tayeb, who urged the West not to hold an entire religion “accountable for the crimes of any small group of followers.” That image of greeting between a Christian and a Muslim runs counter to our populist press view of castigation of a whole people through the actions of a few.

In his opening words Francis said “We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.” Only days after the Palm Sunday bombing of Coptic Christians, it was with open hands rather than clenched fists that the two men embraced each other.

So much of the Gospel narrative is about helping the stranger, of offering a hand when help is needed. The generosity we show to each other is a reflection of the overwhelming generosity that the Lord shows to each one of us.

Open hands are needed when a gift is accepted, a closed fist means that nothing can be received. When in time of prayer we seek the gift of God’s presence, our open hands are essential. We share that gift with others through our presence, our openness to their need.

There is a tension in a clenched fist that transmits both anger and frustration, where closed fingers are wrapped so tightly that no gentle or caring action is possible. When hands are held, fingers are intertwined and forming a fist is not possible. But each hand holding the other is both supportive and comforting, a gentleness is exchanged

Let’s finish with words from Nouwen again.

“Deep silence leads us to realize that prayer is, above all, acceptance. When we pray we are standing with our hands open to the world. We know that God will become known to us in nature around us, in people we meet, in situations we run into.”

It is too much to expect that we can understand if we do not listen, too difficult to give if our hands are not open to receiving. Prayer is a way of life which allows you to find a stillness in the midst of a troubled world.


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  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    So ISIS claims responsibility for the terrorist attack in Manchester.

    ISIS draws its support from oil-rich nations, does it not? Wealthy gulf “angel investors” are trying to destabilise the Western advancement of green energy.

    It is going to be so sad on this planet when “oil” is no longer a traded commodity. The quicker we can get to this stage in our evolution, obviously the better.

    Where are the “angel investors” for green energy and how do I get involved. I personally have $20/month to provide to anyone out there trying to work a grass-roots type fundraising event across all of Catholicism.

    We can’t deny that Laudato si’ exists. It was brought forth at a time it was needed. If you are a priest and this encyclical hasn’t shaped your outlook on life or your homilies yet, there is still time to get involved, even if it is in the background, in silent support of a large, grass-roots effort.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I completely understand the mention of the true spirit of an open hand but what Pope Francis accomplished in Cairo, after having read highlights from his speech, was certainly akin to an iron fist in a velvet glove. He is not afraid to deliver a controversial message, that’s for sure, all the while shunning armoured cars during his visit.

    Can you blame the guy for wanting to modernise Islam? If barbarism can’t be left behind, it will consume all of us. There is a savagery perpetuated on both sides that eats away at our spiritual foundations, whether we choose to own up to it or not, no matter how hard we try to pray it away.

    Since when did Catholicism become a shelter from this cruel world? Isn’t it supposed to be a map that guides us to find the courage within ourselves to confront the rigidity and closed-mindedness that perpetuates this barbarism?

    “..of castigation of a whole people through the actions of a few.” This mindset is so destructive in itself. The violence we see on the planet is very rarely if ever “grass-roots” especially ISIS. Finding examples is very easy.

    The French industrialists within Lafarge allegedly paid taxes to ISIS (Reuters/Le Monde report) in 2013/14 to continue operations in areas where payment meant protection. In June of 2015, was it not Swedish national Bherlin Gildo’s lawyers that argued British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as Gildo was, bringing an end to his terrorism trial. As Syria is destabilised, oil exploration by Murdoch, Cheney, and Rothschild takes place in the south, illegally, on Syrian land occupied by Israel – Golan Heights.

    Not exactly living Laudato si’, are we?

    The West funds it as we continue to prop up these people in financial power. After learning of these atrocities, it has somehow become quite simple to not hold a select few random terrorists responsible for the problems we read about – it is plain and clear to see that ISIS is just another fabricated destabilisation that is let loose, albeit within some of the most violently, oppressive governments known to man. Places where the general population doesn’t normally run riot, if you know what I mean.

    Do you honestly think ISIS would exist if the Muslim community wanted to rid the earth of it? Do you also believe the Catholic community couldn’t call an end to nuclear proliferation if we wanted to?

    Now the tough question is : Do you think politics is going to get us out of this?


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