Thursday, June 11, 2009

Column: The Work of our Hands

The cradle is still in my basement, waiting for the third generation to sleep in it. (That's me in the photo, with my mom and maternal grandmother.)

This was not the easiest column to write -- I couldn't quite get what I wanted to say onto paper (and still don't think I managed all that well). I sympathize with Augustine of Hippo who said, "...I am nearly always dissatistfied with my discourse. For I am desirous of something better...but when I find that my powers of expression come short...I am sore disappointed that my tongue has not been able to answer the demands of my mind." Walter Burghardt, SJ sums up Augustine's advice to those similarly distraught more or less this way: (1) It's never as bad as you think. (2) Endure for the sake of love. (3) As best you can, step out of the way and let God work.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 11 June 2009.

Show forth your work to your servants; let your glory shine on their children. Let the favor of the Lord be upon us: give success to the work of our hands, give success to the work of our hands. — Ps. 90:16-17

Thirteen years ago tonight, I tucked a 2-year-old Mike into bed. On my way out his door I grabbed a clean sheet and small blanket from the dresser and made up the cradle Victor had carried up from the basement to set by our bed, then packed my bag to go to the hospital. Two days later, I would carry a newborn Chris up the stairs and tuck him, sleeping, into its safe confines.

The cradle is the work of my father’s hands. He found the plans, altered them to suit, ordered the cherry planks and braved snowy streets to pick them up. He measured, cut, glued, sanded and waxed the wood and set it out to await the arrival of his first-born — me. The work of his hands has since cradled eight babies and two generations.

The psalmist sought God’s favor — not in the abstract, but for the very tangible — grant success to the work of our hands, or as some translations put it, make firm the work of our hands. I wonder if we feel that desire even more so now, where so much is mass produced and disposable. We long to create that which will last, like the cradle, from one generation to the next.

We often cherish things handmade, not so much for their beauty, but because of what they reveal to us of the hands that made them. My desk is replete with such revelations. A lime green origami swan, painstakingly folded by a one-handed Chris, perches atop my computer, while Mike’s first efforts at pottery serve to keep my emergency chocolate supply within reach. I rarely register the uneven folds and lopsided edges of the bowl; I always see their hands in love on these objects.

The works of our hands have the potential to be more than small reminders of love. In one of his general audiences Pope John Paul II reflected, too, on the very end of this psalm, noting “the person praying asks something more of God: that His grace support and gladden our days, even while they are so fragile … may he grant us to taste the flavor of hope … Only the grace of the Lord can give our daily actions consistency and perpetuity.”

We look for success not in our efforts, but ask instead for God to pull them firmly into His work. The work of our hands, even with its uneven edges and lopsidedness, can be acts of hope and faith as much as love when grounded in God’s work.

The cradle my father’s hands made for his children yet unborn speaks volumes both of love and of hope, of his willingness to be drawn into the work of God’s hands — the work of hope and love that made us all. Grant success to the work of our hands, grant success to the work of our hands.

Eternal Father, You give us life despite our guilt and even add days and years to our lives in order to bring us wisdom. Make us love and obey You, so that the works of our hands may always display what Your hands have done, until the day we gaze upon the beauty of Your face. Amen.— from the Office of Readings, Thursday Week III


  1. This is a good reminder for me in my crochet ministry. I'm by no means an expert crocheter. I've made many things for people needing healing, comfort, or welcoming to the world, and each of them has particular imperfections (some of them rather entertaining).

    I just acquired a new pattern for a Goddess shawl, and a dear F/friend has asked me to make it for her. She, on the other hand, is an expert knitter, and is knitting me an amazing shawl.

    So I am reminding myself that I don't have to be the kind of crochet expert that she is a knitting expert.

    That what matters, as with all my crochet ministry (as with all my ministry?), is the work of my hands - the love, the magic and prayer, the care, the connection, that I put into what I make.

    Thanks, Michelle.

  2. I read this and felt joy for all those babies.

    and also for my hands which I do so much with... though I was mocked by a student this week... "Real men don't wear gardening gloves," he said to me. Don't know how I tolerate such punks.