Empty Hands

I take the opportunity to read many things about Nicaragua. Some are by Nicaraguans, opining about life in that country.  Others are by North Americans who have traveled to the country and been moved to offer written reflections about their experiences.  The following is a portion of a thoughtful and moving piece written by Harvard Divinity School scholar Desiree Bernard upon a meeting she had with Father Fernando Cardenal, the Jesuit priest whose commitment to the poor in Nicaragua has been unwavering over the course of his long service there.  I thank Ms. Bernard for her  reflection which appeared in the March 2013 ProNica‘s “News from Nicaragua:”

Father Fernando Cardenal gave us advice on our last full day as a group in Nicaragua.  He said, first, to stay connected in community.  When one is connected with others and not isolated, it makes the possibility of progress much more vital and accessible.  Also, he said, to think of our children who, perhaps ten years from now, will be asking us the question: where were you, Father?  Where were you, Mother, when this or that event was transpiring in history?  You want to be able to say you were there, said Father Cardenal.  You want to make them proud.

Finally, he told a story of a person who was dying and bemoaning the sense of leaving this world with “hands empty.”  What he meant by this, he explained, was that this dying person was suffering with existential anguish because they felt they had not done anything important, anything that mattered, with their life.  Father Cardenal warned us not to end up this way.  Do not die with your hands empty, he said, do something that matters.  Do not just exist for yourself.  Join with others and serve others.  This exchange from one hand to the other, this giving, is the practice that generates a sense of our life as an offering when it comes time to die.  This is what brings ultimate peace.  Our hands are not empty, because they are full of our offerings.

The stories as told by Father Cardenal remind me of two distinct truths.  First, Father Cardenal understands and communicates the truth of our lives when we often miss such realities ourselves.  When he speaks, either through his stories or visions for the future, he has the capacity to softly touch us in places of the heart, awakening what we know to be true about our lives, what we are here for, what we owe to each other and the world at-large.  The words are gentle, yet often difficult to hear because of what they say about ourselves, our priorities, our missed chances as well as our great opportunities.  He is an avuncular voice of conscience.

Second, the lesson of empty hands reveals one of the most difficult and counter-intuitive truths of human existence.  Our innate tendencies push us to matters of self, to concentrate our energies in pursuit of achievement or acquisitions that can never satisfy an insatiable push for more.  We know that our possessions and accolades are so much “dust in the wind,” and yet pursuit of them is what drives many of us throughout our days.  In that sense, we DO leave this earth with empty hands, unable to maintain our hold on virtually any of these things.  But the work we have done for others during our time here- the answer to the question “where were you?”-  THAT will be the true measure of the fullness of our hands and lives.  It’s a reality that is tough for most of us to live by.  Father Cardenal asks, as a gift to ourselves, that we try….




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