The Hands of a Mother
A number of new priests are reviving an old custom that wasn’t as popular at the time of my ordination. The newly ordained presents his mother with the manutergium (Latin for “hand towel”)—a special cloth that’s used to soak up the chrism oil after a bishop anoints the new priest’s hands. His mother is buried holding this cloth in her hands. According to a pious tradition, when she appears before our Lord, he asks her, “I have given you life. What have you given to me?” She offers him the manutergium and replies, “I have given you my son as a priest.”
My mother was buried empty-handed a few months ago. Having a son as a priest may mean far less to my mother when she meets her Maker than her being my mother will mean to me when I stand before the Lord.
An essential part of us dies with the death of our mother. That’s true about the loss of loved ones in general, but feeling, to quote the blues song, “like a motherless child” at any age is significant because of the unique symbiotic bond we have with our mother—regardless of her flaws or the condition of our relationship with her.
In coping with my mother’s death, these words come to mind: “The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.” When Henri Nouwen’s mother died, he advised his father against thinking that the passage of time would erase her memory or slowly ease the pain: “If time does anything, it deepens our grief. The longer we live, the more fully we become aware of who she was for us, and the more intimately we experience what her love meant for us….The pain we are now experiencing shows us how deep, full, intimate, and all-pervasive her love was” (A Letter of Consolation, 1985). In other words, our loss is profound because a mother’s love is so profound. Our acute pain in grieving is an indicator of her all-encompassing love—in life and beyond—for not even death can ever separate us from it.
Pope Francis said that a world without mothers would be “inhumane, because mothers always know how to give witness—even in the worst of times—to tenderness, dedication, and moral strength.” It’s precisely because the hands of a mother nurture, discipline, caress, and comfort that the anointed hands of a priest consecrate, absolve, baptize, and bless! What was written anonymously about the hands of a priest can be adapted to apply to a mother’s hands as well: “We need them in life’s early morning / we desire them again at its close; / We feel their warm clasp of affection, / we seek them when tasting life’s woes.”
If all sons and daughters were buried with a cloth representative of our mother’s love, we’d appear before our Lord wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy.