The holidays in Spain are not unlike the holidays anywhere — food and family, travel and church, lots and lots of shopping. Of course there are cultural peculiarities but the basic rhythm is familiar — bursts of frenzy interrupted by occasional moments of nostalgia, gratitude, or wonder.
My holidays were especially blessed by the visit of my mother and sister. Whatever happiness I’ve found in Madrid over the past year and a half I did my best to share with them. There were lots of churros and chocolate, old winding roads and graceful gothic churches. There were many curious questions, plenty of laughter, and more photos than you could shake a selfie-stick at.
As we strolled through one of the many museums, my sister mentioned that in old portraits the appearance of one or two visible hands was a sign of wealth, that you would have to pay extra for the hands. Who knows. But looking back on our photos, I notice our hands and the many gestures we made with them — embracing one another, holding various foodstuffs, or hiding away in a pocket on a cold rainy day. Phone calls are good and selfies are nice, but given the chance, you should pay extra for the hands. The hands say everything.
When my mother and sister left Madrid I was headed to Rome for a meeting. So, after leaving them at the airport, I went straight to the immigration office to complete a tedious bureaucratic task concerning my residency card. I found myself thrust into the close proximity of total strangers waiting for hours in an overcrowded partially converted prison. After a week of sightseeing and museums I began to look at those strangers as my sister and I had looked at those old portraits. These folks weren’t wealthy (the wealthy are hard to come by in immigration offices, let alone prisons), but even still, I was sure to notice their hands, their gestures, their nervous tics, their particular way of removing their coats or putting them on again.
I stood near a very tall man who was pushing a child’s stroller with one hand while cradling his newborn daughter close to his chest with the other. She was, because of his considerable height, right before my eyes and, because of her infant fragility, absolutely precious. She slept peacefully while the rest of us nervously awaited our turn with the immigration officers, waiting to process our paperwork, to sign documents, to beg for some bureaucratic mercy.
As the young father drew nearer to the counter he gently placed the child flat on her back in the stroller. Her eyes popped wide open in a startled realization that something had changed, that she was no longer in the protective arms of her dad. She began the first stuttering gasps of a shrieking cry for help. The man stood over her, tall as a tree, looked straight into her eyes, bent down toward her, extended his long arm, and placed his thin right hand firmly on her chest.
The gesture reminded me of someone single-handedly palming a basketball or a skilled mason carefully laying a stone. He simply pressed her into the stroller, gently but firmly, not unlike a baker testing a freshly kneaded mound of dough. It seemed both a blessing and an affirmation — You’re alright; you’re right here; you’re exactly where I put you. With this gentle pressure on her body and beneath his reassuring gaze, her eyes widened again for a moment as she made one last fitful yawn before exhaling softly and returning to sleep.
My own prayer is often inspired by visualising the simple gestures of a scripture story — imagining the gentle pressure of an embrace, the soul searching power of a momentary gaze, the reconciling truth of a simple footwashing. Small gestures say a lot — the holding of a hand, the wiping of a tear, the anointing of a wound.
Jesuits say of Jesus that we know who we are by looking at him. I would add that, because of him, we can say the same of all those strangers standing in line at the immigration office in that overcrowded prison. In the poor and vulnerable we can know who God is. In the loving gestures of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, we can know who God is. In the work of our own hands, in simple acts of mercy and love, we can know who God is. And we can know who we are by looking at each of them.
As my turn came, I handed over my paperwork and, when I was asked to do so, I took a cheap pen in my hand and made the simple gesture that records my presence, that signifies my identity. With my signature I made the sign that lets the world know that I am. And, in that moment, standing near that father and his precious child, remembering the recent embrace of my mother and sister, it was enough. It was enough to know that in this sometimes cold and confusing world we are all held in love. It became quite clear to me that we are not unlike that child and God is not unlike that father. And, in that moment, that I am was enough for me.