Around 1490 in Germany there were two young struggling artists who were close friends. Albrecht Durer and Franz Knigstein were very poor and could not afford to pay for proper art training. In desperation they decided to cast lots to decide which one would go to the Art Academy, while the other worked to support him. They would then exchange roles so that the second one could go for training. Albrecht won the toss and went off to study with some of the most famous artists in the country while Franz went down into the nearby cold, wet mines and worked hard to support them both.
Albrecht’s art work soon proved to be sensational, better even than that of his professors. When he qualified and returned to his village he could well afford to send Franz to follow in his footsteps. But to his horror he discovered that the heavy manual work in the cold and dangerous mines had ruined Franz’s hands for ever. The fingers had been broken and arthritis had left them stiff and painful. He had sacrificed his dreams for the sake of his friend.
One day Albrecht found Franz on his knees, his gnarled hands joined in prayer. Hurriedly he sketched the joined hands and produced what has become the world famous ‘Praying Hands’ picture, still familiar to many of us today. Inspired by this picture and story, the famous author of religious and inspirational literature, Helen Steiner Rice, composed a poem with the same title, ‘Praying Hands’, which in turn became the most popular greeting card ever written. Here are some extracts:
“These hands so scarred and toilworn
tell the story of a man
who sacrificed his talent
in accordance with God’s plan.
For in God’s plan are many things
man cannot understand.
But we must trust God’s judgement
And be guided by his hand.
Sometimes he asks us to give up
our dreams of happiness.
Sometimes we must let go our hopes
of fortune and success.
But he who makes a sacrifice
so another may succeed
is indeed a true disciple
of our blessed Saviour’s creed.
For when we give ourselves away
in sacrifice and love
we are laying up rich treasures
in God’s kingdom up above.
For any sacrifice on earth
made in the dear Lord’s name
assures the giver of a place
in ‘Heaven’s Hall of Fame’.”
The joined hands symbolise prayer, so essential to nurture our spiritual life. The rough, toil-worn hands represent our life of work, of love and service, which is also an essential part of our Christian journey. In fact Vatican II warns us that “some people wrongly think that religion consists only in acts of worship and a few moral duties. But our life of faith and our daily life must never be separated like this. They are one life” (Church in the Modern World, 43). It even warns that Christians who “neglect their earthly duties, neglect their duties to their fellow human beings, and even to God”.
When serving as a Eucharistic Minister many years ago in Kuching I was often touched when old men and women, with lined and weather-worn faces stretched out scarred and gnarled hands to receive the Lord. They brought to the Eucharist all the pains and struggles of lives poured out in the service of family and community. I have no doubt that, like Franz in our story, they had “laid up rich treasures in God’s kingdom up above”.
Bro Columba Gleeson