Within a loving grasp – Daily Prayer

Hands tell a story of their owners. They grasp, grasp, calm down, turn away or wave, and the lined hands of old age are also the lined hands of knowledge that has been built up over many years.

Pope Francis visited Iraq in March; the first Pope to step into this old and troubled land. A picture will be remembered for a long time. On March 6, the Pope visited the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the Ayatollah’s house in Najaf. He lives in a narrow alley, so getting there was not easy in the truest sense of the word.

Pope Francis was 84 and the Ayatollah was over 90, so there was plenty of experience in the meeting. Both men had seen their share of pain, made mistakes, and lived with God in their hearts all their lives. Both were deeply respected by the communities that led them. But here they were, men the world would expect to be suspicious, even hostile, of one another. For its part, the Catholic community mourned the deaths of many people in Iraq.

Hands tell a story

The picture that went around the world shows two old men leaning inward, hopefully to understand each other better. The photo draws attention to her hands, which seem to be telling a story of their own. Both have their hands on their knees. The hands look nervous. Please God, they seek reconciliation and peace. Please God you are ready to keep one another as brothers. But it’s a little unclear. Only courageous leaders can seize these opportunities, take these risks. These hands are wise with age. They have learned when to hold on and when to let go, when to give and when to ask.

For some reason they resembled one of the most famous pairs of hands in all of art. These are the hands in the center of a painting with a dreary official name: Arrangement in Gray and Black No 1 by James Whistler, completed in 1871. Much better known as the Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, it is an instantly recognizable portrait of a character belonging to the Loved artist. The painting is now popping up everywhere from postage stamps to tea towels to puzzles. Some people may even remember that it appeared in one of Rowan Atkinson’s exploits, Mr Bean. The unfortunate Mr. Bean gets a job in the gallery and sneezes all over the painting to make the colors run. Of course, a disaster follows a disaster.

The portrait should never be from the artist’s mother. Anna Whistler, who was not doing well at the time, stood in for a model who was sick herself. Mothers are often like that, doing their children favors, even when the son is 37 and Anna is 67. Her poor health may be responsible for the fact that observers sometimes found this to be an extremely unflattering portrait. Anna’s face definitely looks tense.

Respect for loss

The tone of the painting is more a result of the choice of color, especially the sea of ​​black on which Anna is enthroned. This, of course, is the mourning gown she has been wearing since her husband died 18 years ago. She missed him terribly. James conveys her grief by depicting her hands clinging to a handkerchief, the focal point of light in an area of ​​darkness. The painting respects the loss of the mother.

Anna McNeil Whistler would be remembered more as the mother of a famous painter. She lived in several countries, including Russia, where her husband was an engineer. She buried two of her own children. As a widow, she coped with severe poverty and struggled to raise James. She later became his manager and brought his work the attention it deserved. Her biographers Daniel Sutherland and Georgia Toutziari describe her as “independent, resilient and unconventional as the warmest pioneer”. Interestingly, given the famous portrait, it says that she “was seldom content to sit passively at home” but “was constantly on the move, her busy life full of excitement, full of important people and full of triumphs and tragedies?”

Some of that comes in a measured way through the painting. These hands are not ready to let go of whatever the darkness is hiding underneath. Your eyes are looking for a new place. She doesn’t focus on the painting behind her or on the son creating her picture. Like Pope Francis, she is looking for a place beyond her immediate vicinity. She was a Christian and a woman praying whose silence was no passivity.

Movement of the soul

As St. Ignatius told us, prayer has a great deal to do with the movement of the soul. It never quite leaves you where you were in the beginning.

At Pentecost, we were reminded that the youth will see visions, which is great. The ancients will dream dreams, which is even better. A vision leads us into the future. We need that. Dreams can lead us both into the past and into the future. That is the wisdom of mature years. It knows that life is moving and that the Lord sits with us on every new journey.

Image: Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. 1871. Wikimedia.

Michael McGirr is the author of many books, including Ideas to Save Your Life (Nov. 2021). Books That Saved My Life, Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleeping, Bypass; The story of a street and things that you get for free. His religious books include Finding God’s Traces and Doorways to Hope and Joy at Advent and Christmas. He has extensive experience as a secondary school teacher in Faith and Mission and currently works for Caritas Australia. He lives in Melbourne with Jenny and their three children.

This article first appeared in Madonna magazine Edition winter 2021.

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