By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published March 3, 2011
February 2 was the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
The celebrations began beautifully. We welcomed the morning with a candlelight procession through our cloister and on into the church. We moved slowly, chanting an ancient Latin hymn as we walked. People from the area joined us in the procession. The small candles flickered, giving just enough light to read the Latin hymn that was printed on a paper we held in our hands. We moved into the choir stalls, and the Mass went on as usual.
Our abbot, Francis Michael, gave a homily in which he spoke of the wondrous coming of God through the living revelation of a baby. It is an ongoing revelation—always new, always coming with each new day. Always blessing, gathering, knowing all joy and sorrow because he lives in them. He lives in us.
That day’s activities were very much carried out in preparation for our guests who joined us for vespers and supper. Or—we were really their guests, for Archbishop Wilton Gregory hosted a dinner here that evening for the Consecrated Religious of the Archdiocese. He expressed his gratitude to the men and women who gave their lives in consecrated dedication to God, through the church. We provided the setting. It was a wonderful evening, one that grows in significance with each passing year.
I sat at a table at the far end of the room since I wanted to be as discreet as possible when I moved around to take pictures.
On the walls of the refectory and the scriptorium there hung photographs. They were beautiful. They are photographs of hands, hands aged and hands well aged, delicate hands of women and rough hands of men. Hands playing a guitar, hands holding a rosary, hands working the soil of a garden, hands folded in prayer. They graced an entire wall in the refectory as the many guests moved about, sharing wine and talking of life.
The pictures, of course, were silent.
I gazed upon them as living hands moved all about me, holding glasses, grasping hands in welcome, gesturing to make a point, serving food, pouring wine. The photographer’s art was able to catch signs of age and youth, stilled for a second, framed for a meditative invitation to see something of God’s work.
Our Brother Mark wrote a wonderful poem for the occasion and that, too, graced the wall:
God touches the world through our hands
rough hands to build
gentle hands to soothe pain, fear and anxiety,
artistic hands to show God’s beauty,
hands to write prose, poetry and theology,
each use to manifest Christ in the world
yet all flowing from the same Spirit.
All of the above was so alive and visible that night, as if Mark’s words came to life and found their proper places of being in the hearts, the laughter, the joy, the hands of the men and women in the room. The words of the poem grew from life, from “hands-on” experience.
So did the photographs.
Dr. Stephen Golder is the artist who took and shared the photographs of the hands. There was an empty seat to my right at that table at the far end of the room and when he approached our table, I pulled the chair out and asked if he would please join us. He did—he gently placed his camera on the table, for he was taking pictures all through the evening—and he sat and joined us. We chatted, and I found out that he is a medical doctor, practicing up in Chattanooga, and whose specialization is oncology, treatment for cancer. He is a very gentle and kind man and impressed me as having found something in the area of religious life that resonates deeply with his sensitivity as a doctor and his marvelous “eye” for the ordinary beauties of this life, such as human hands.
I was so drawn into his words about his life, his profession, his family and his photography that I never did get around to moving about and taking some pictures.
It was nearing the end of the evening. Dr. Golder had left, as did most of our guests. In the far corner, those who helped serve the meal that night—friends from near and far who are always glad to be of help—sat and were enjoying their dinner and conversation. I watched hands move in the air, hands holding bottles and pouring just right, hands doing all that hands can do to feed, share, offer warmth, offer presence.
Mark is right. It all flows from God through us. All the time and even forever.
God set aside this world for something special, something remarkable, something yet in the making. And we set aside from our lives in this world one special night, a night to ponder consecrated life and rejoice in it. We mean something beautiful to each other, thanks be to God.
And we need to be reminded of that, called together by an Archbishop who is as grateful for us as we are for him.