Jason Byassee: Mother Teresa's and Billy Graham's hands
Is this how holiness is passed? Like an electric charge, from the hands of Jesus through saints’ hands to ours?
Two friends have known personally two of the great saints of the 20th century: Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Their stories both focus on hands, and since we ministers serve with our hands perhaps this is not accidental.
Chris Heuertz is perhaps a bit hard on himself in his book “Simple Spirituality” when he remembers his proud desire to impress Mother. He wanted to ask her a question no one ever had before, so she would remember him. And then, “As though a gentle breeze brushed my face, she suddenly and quietly appeared. Strength and meekness held in perfect tension, sitting beside me, she tenderly took my hands and set them in her lap.”
Then she asked the questions he would never forget: about him, his family, why he was in India. This world-famous Nobel laureate and universally acclaimed (well, except by Christopher Hitchens) saint “Made me feel as if I were the most important person in the world,” Heuertz writes. “I felt sincerely loved by her.” When I met Heuertz recently, I didn’t just want to shake those hands that had been held in Mother’s lap. I wanted to kiss them. They had been held by holiness itself -- a saint -- as close as we can get to God with skin on.
Duke Divinity professor Grant Wacker recently met with Billy Graham as part of his ongoing work on a biography on the great evangelist. Wacker has the blessing not only of writing a book that will help us all understand the church in modern America better. He has the blessing of doing so while Graham still lives. So he has met Graham twice now. He tells the stories best himself, but I will steal a few here. It is heartening to hear that Graham comes off as still witty, kind and sharp. In Grant’s words, “that Carolina-accented baritone still rang clear.” But the detail that captivated me was, again, one of the hands.
As they went to leave, Graham’s assistant asked Grant if he would pray with them. He, Grant Wacker, pray with and for Billy Graham, one of our century’s giants, a man who has introduced Christ to more people than anyone who has ever lived. What was he to do? Grant prayed, and as he did he felt the fragility of the nonogenarian’s hands. Careful Grant—I might go to kissing when I see you next (and so might a few readers).
The ancient church, and Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox branches still, think it crucial to the nature of the church that it have bishops ordained by bishops all the way back to the apostles. The physical touch is appealing -- it suggests continuity through time with teaching first entrusted to the disciples by Jesus himself. Careful with this -- the touch of a predecessor is no guarantor for holiness, as church history amply shows.
But the hands still appeal. The holiness of one’s hands depends not on being ordained in a magisterial church, as neither of these two are. It depends on the quality of one’s love, the people one has touched. And aren’t we lucky (no, blessed) to touch such hands as these?
Whose hands have you touched that work like a conduit of holiness, a charge sent straight from Jesus through his church?
Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.