Holding Thorny Hands

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A couple of weeks ago, a disturbed young man got onto the metro train in Vancouver and began acting erratically and shouting and cursing.  As people in the car began moving away from him, one woman did the opposite.  A seventy-year old woman moved toward the man and reached out her hand and gently held his hand.  She just gently put her hand in his.  The man immediately calmed down, and then, sitting on the floor, began to cry.  Then after a little while, he got off the train saying only, “Thanks Grandma.”  You can read the story here.

It’s amazing to me how little we really have to give each other, and how much that little means.  It’s as if a touch, a word, communicates the whole heart.  And that’s what we need in this crazy world: someone else who can tell us that we are OK, despite the insanity that slips out, someone else whose heart understands that often insanity is the only sane response to such an insane world.

St. Isaac says that we cannot see the Word of God radiating from the created world except by divine vision.  This is a gift of God that comes only to those who live in repentance, and then only gradually.  To see the beautiful and true and real poking through like spring crocuses here or there, surrounded by the mud and dead grass and woody, thorny branches that hold so much potential for new growth, flowers and fruit—if only spring would come.  And spring never seems to come.  It seems the world is trapped in an never-ending February, never-ending cold and wind and unforgiving brutality.  But our hearts long for June.  Somehow we know we were created for June.  And were it not for the few crocuses, there would be no hope at all.

I have not had much experience with divine vision: just enough to notice a few crocuses here and there.  And this is what I hang on to.  I can’t make the thorny branches of the rose bloom.  In winter the thorns are particularly vicious.  Most of the thorny realities—or false realities—that surround me will not see Spring (they do not want to see Spring) until the Creator comes again and says: “You are rose!” Then, as Jesus said, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, not—at least according to the vision of St. Isaac—because of punishment, but because of love spurned, because of a lifetime wasted in thorny winter refusing to believe in Spring, refusing to see the crocuses, refusing to breathe the warm air of the resurrection.

St. Isaac says, “Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns, and in the midst of thorns we both sow and reap, even if our seed is the seed of righteousness… in every hour we are pricked by the thorns….”   St. Isaac tells us, that the only hope in this world, the only means to divine vision is to “eat” Christ, “the bread of love, which is Jesus!”  This of course refers to the Eucharist (St. Isaac apparently celebrated the Eucharist daily), but it also refers to a eucharistic life, a life pervaded by love: “He who eats of love, eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness, saying, ‘God is love.’”  Christ is love and love is Christ: to eat love is to eat Christ. He goes on to say, “Wherefore, the man who lives in love reaps life from God, and while yet in this world, he even now breathes the air of the resurrection.”  Yes, that’s it: the air of the resurrection, the crocuses, “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen” (Heb. 11:1).

And so it is in the hope of Spring, a Springtime we may not see in this mortal life, it is in that hope that we lovingly tend the rose bushes, despising the thorns (despise in the sense of not giving them, or the wounds they cause us, much thought) knowing that in the Spring it will be worth it, finding hope in the occasional crocus poking through the mud.  This is the labour of love in this world, this is the sowing of righteousness.  And this is why we reach out and gently hold a crazy man’s hand.  This is why we hold each other’s hand, even when it hurts, even when we seem insane.  Perhaps especially then.


  1. Thank you, Fr. Michael. This reminds me of a quote by St. Tikhon of Zadonsk: “As fire is not extinguished by fire, so anger is not conquered by anger, but is made even more inflamed. But meekness often subdues even the most beastly enemies, softens them and pacifies them.”

    1. An excellent introduction to St. Isaac is “The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian” by Hilarion Alfeyev. There is also a very nice booklet by Sebastian Brock called “The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian.” It’s published by SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford.
      St. Isaac has to be read slowly and prayerfully over a long time, a lifetime, perhaps.

      1. Thank you so much! Reading good books slowly is a good practice (Hopko’s maxims), but a difficult discipline for me!

  2. Especially during this time of Lent, we embrace these words with hope in the resurrection. Thank you for lighting up my day, thank you for sharing.

  3. Bonjour et merci Père.
    Twenty years ago I used to pass close to beggers with barely a look while I was living near Parliament Hill in Ottawa. It’s only after finding a job at the Université du Québec à Montréal situated in a poor neighborhood that my heart started to ”melt down” (I became an Orthodox a few years before that). One cold Winter, I began to look into the eyes of a poor sitting on the ground next to a pizzeria and give them some spare change or a chocolate bar during lunch time. Then I started also to ask the poor fellow his first name (and gave mine). Then twice when the temperature was artic that year, I got one named Marcel from far-away Gaspésie (a région next to New-Brunswick) to follow me inside an Amir restaurant (Middle Eastern food) to get some heat and paid him a meal. (A month or so later, I went alone for lunch and the Lebanese manager of Amir said to me: ”this one is free today for you!”)
    As a minimum, we have to let them feel they are human beings loved by God. When we meet one, even if we cannot give them anything that day, at least look into their eyes with compassion. Let them know they exist. And if you can give at least some spare change, say hello, ask their first name and tell them ”God is giving you this.”
    -In XC

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