God Uses My Hands
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.
My father was a talented professional artist and, at one time, his magnificent religious paintings hung in the reception room at Saint Martin of Tours Church in Philadelphia. There was a painting of Jesus preaching to a crowd displayed alongside his huge murals on every wall, along with hand-lettered passages of scripture. Religious ceremonies were often performed there, particularly christenings, which is why it was referred to as the Baptismal Room. There, the priest baptized babies and young children using water to symbolize purification and consecration of the child’s life to God. According to the New Testament, humans come into the world with original sin, making Baptism the first and most important sacrament that cleanses the soul and begins the person’s life as a Christian.
Although my father was not very religious, he lived the messages portrayed in his paintings. I’m not sure how aware he was of his dependence on God, if any of us ever is. But looking back, it’s as if his basement studio in our home was the true-life baptism for all seventeen of us, his children. There we sat, listening to our father’s words of wisdom, as he painted and taught us to lead a good life, according to God’s laws. It wasn’t very different from the way Jesus taught the children in that painting in the Baptism Room, and the way everyone listened to Him. As I came to understand, it’s by the Grace of God that we each find our own way to live His message–by hearing only the loving thoughts of God.
The paintings in the church reception room emanated messages of beauty and holiness, and they reminded me of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. There were so many important, significant messages in these wondrous works of art, and each was exemplified in the way our father raised us. But I didn't fully appreciate the deeper meaning of these images until much later in life, until I had come through my own time of great sorrow.
When my father painted, we all crowded around him, watching over his shoulders with amazement as the images came to life. I can still recall the scent of the oils and thinners that permeated the house. He used a makeshift light, since the basement had very little natural light. We also had to be very quiet if we wanted to stay and watch him paint, and we listened silently as he taught us life lessons as he dipped his brush in the oils, dabbing the brush so delicately to blend the perfect shades. There was no other sound but his breathing and the brushstrokes as he skillfully applied the colors to the large canvases that took up half the room. Soon the beautiful colors came to life in eyes that seemed to look back at or straight through us. Sometimes I even felt anxious, my heart beating faster, as the characters came to life on the canvas.
“Wow, Daddy, how did you do that?” we would ask in astonishment. But he would simply say, “I don't do anything myself. God does it for me. He uses my hands!” My father had never taken an art class, and he wasn't religious, but somehow he always gave glory to God for everything good in his life. His stories and the messages in his paintings taught us that there is a greater power in us than we are aware of, and his message that God was working through his hands and doing the work for him imparted a wisdom that stayed with me for my entire life.
But most of all, as I matured and found that some of life's greatest lessons are present in the most difficult times, I’d be reminded of my father’s words of wisdom, often in some of the greatest spiritual books ever written. During the worst of times, I prayed with all my heart for God to guide me in the same way as He’d guided my father. It took some time before I would see and hear the truth, and this wasn't easy for me, but I kept at it. I wanted to believe, and I wanted to see the beauty and a holier vision of life than the one I’d created for myself.
Another lesson my father taught us was humility and the real spirit of charity. Because the church couldn't afford to pay him what he should have earned for those large, incredibly detailed paintings that took so much time to make, and because the church was so dependent on donations for survival, my father willingly accepted only the small payment they could afford. He considered the painting a donation to support the Catholic Church where his children attended school or received Catechism instruction. This taught us that we could find true wealth and riches in being happy and content with what we had, and that we could bring love and happiness to the world around us. He also told us that the true purpose of his artwork was to reflect the innate beauty in every perspective with what we believe is possible.
Our father also taught us through his way of looking at things, and in looking beyond the immediate circumstances to the true meaning and purpose of everything in our lives. Looking back, I now understand his sacred wisdom, and how richly blessed I was to be his earthly daughter. For truly, we are all children of a King, and when we listen with our hearts, we find that we were long ago given the kingdom, and we eventually understand that our predominant thoughts, words, and feelings have brought us exactly what we have imagined in our hearts.
The earliest churches had stained-glass windows created to inspire us, to lift us up and help us feel God’s Presence, through the light that illuminated the beautiful images. Abbot Suger of the Abbey of St. Dennis explained it best, saying that the presence of beautiful objects would lift men's souls closer to God.
Transformation takes place in God’s Presence and inspires us to great things, just as the stained- glass artist and my father expressed their love of God in their artwork, which in turn lifts my soul and inspires me to glorify Him even more. For some of us, the more mature we become, the more we are able to see the perfection of our mother’s love. But our mom was out of the ordinary. Not just because she was ours, but because she overcame all the odds against her. I have no idea how she was able to take care of such a large number of children so well, with such joy, and with virtually without help. That she did leads me to believe that she was especially blessed and loved by God.
I believe she was the most wondrous woman I have ever known, and everyone who knew her was convinced she was a saint. It was her inspiration that gave me the courage to go on during the darkest night of my soul, and I truly believe her wisdom will guide others through any storm, just as it did for me. Mom was my first role model, one who taught me about God, and her message of faith was clearer than any found in a book. She taught us that a powerful spirit lives in every human being, and that built-in knowledge lives inside all of our hearts. She showed us how to use it, and taught us the greatest lessons, not in words alone, but also in the way she lived, through goodness, mercy, and love.
Married at the tender age of sixteen, she gave birth to a child every year‒for eighteen years. She remained remarkably pretty; she never wore makeup, had a beautiful complexion, high cheek bones, and naturally black hair. I wonder now if that beauty was a result of bearing so many children, or because of the deep love of the artist who adored her. Mom devoted her life to raising her children and helping the poor, all the while making each of her children feel special.
Mom taught us that the most precious thing in life is love, but at the time I didn't realize it was the same message as the one Jesus taught. I realize now that she gave each of us the key to life when she explained that God lives in our hearts. Unlike my father, she was religious, and she made sure we always went to church. She also made sure that we lived those Christian truths we were taught, and that we did the right things in God’s eyes.
We were taught at an early age to respect everyone, and that we were no different from anyone else, regardless of what we thought of them or what our personal preference might be. We were taught that good manners and honesty were of the utmost importance, and that regardless of what we planned to do with our lives, our morals, values, and virtues had to come first. She treated everyone exactly the same way, with respect, and told us, “God knows everything you do, so when you look in the mirror, you will see the truth because you can't fool God or your true self for long.” She was quite familiar with the smaller self that lives inside every person, and knew that one day we would see exactly who was inside us, doing all the talking!
Whenever we kids had a dispute, Mom never took sides. She managed to listen and keep us in line, while letting each of us feel understood. She went out of her way to make things right and helped us make sense of the things we couldn’t understand. She always taught us that love is best expressed through action.
Mom often talked about losing sleep over seeing some stranger doing without something he or she needed. That’s because she didn't believe that other people’s problems were theirs alone, and that if we knew someone needed something, it was up to us to help them if we could. It wasn’t enough just to feel compassion; we had to act. But she also never interfered or spoke out of turn, and never offered her opinion when she wasn't asked. Mom was calm, reserved, and carried herself well, and I realize that she was exceptionally rich and blessed by creating so much love in our family. It’s the reason I write about the truths she exemplified as she raised our family with joy. Any one of those truths would be enough to help a lost one find the true path‒just as I eventually did.
Mom taught us by example; she would have us do favors and chores for others, once again teaching us the most valuable of lessons. As she explained, without those lessons we would not go very far. She never questioned anyone's worthiness or judged what was fair or right for someone else. In her eyes, everyone was worthy, and her mission was to serve us all and lift all of our spirits, as well as those of our spouses whom she treated as her own sons and daughters, and all of her many grandchildren. I didn’t always realize that this isn't the norm, especially hearing so much about the differences between families and in-laws, and the damage caused in any type of separation that isn’t handled carefully. Had Mom witnessed the consequences of unresolved childhood issues, and understood that they would come back to haunt us if left unresolved? We’ll never know for sure, but she obviously had this insight.
Mom often spoke to us about “the wonderment of life,” and how we were all here because of her. Nothing gave her more pleasure than just seeing us laugh, and she always lived in the present moment. We would ask her which of her children she liked best, and she would answer us with another question: “Look at your fingers. Do you like one more than the other?” It was a perfect way to illustrate her point that it would be impossible to choose. She always made sure that each of us knew she loved us, and that our differences were what made us unique and treasured.
She always spoke her sacred wisdom with great tenderness and handled her responsibilities with joy, which she radiated. She was so aware of the everyday miracles that most of us tend to miss, and often spoke about the importance of praying for other children and families who were suffering hardships such as being poor, sick, or alone, and told us that she counted her blessings every day that all her children were healthy. It wasn't until after her passing that so much changed.
I believe her vision and faith gave her the wonderful family life that she loved so much; she told us she depended on God and talked to Him every day. I believe this, and that she also was able to hear His guidance; otherwise, how else could she have had such wisdom? Because of her large family, she had much more experience and practice than most mothers, and everything was magnified by the large number of children in her care.
In October 1958, when she gave birth to her eighteenth child, Mom was acknowledged in all the Philadelphia newspapers as the youngest mother to have given birth to that many children in Philadelphia. Alas, one was stillborn.
Our father was a commercial artist and designer who also worked with home improvement design. He taught art and interior design classes in the Philadelphia School of Art between 1949 and 1953. He painted murals in some of the finest homes, churches, hotels, and restaurants in Philadelphia, along with to the ones at our church. He also painted the background scenes for the animal exhibits at The Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science, and was offered a job painting scenery at Walt Disney Studios. Although he felt greatly honored, he declined the position because it would have taken him away from home for months at a time, and he believed it was more important to stay close to home and help his wife raise their children. He keenly felt his responsibilities as a father with a house full of children, and was not willing to shirk it by being away, working. This showed us, his children, that we were far more important to him than having a prestigious job and earning a larger salary.
Dad was a veteran of World War II, and then was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, during which conflict he was wounded by an exploding land mine. Shrapnel was embedded throughout his entire back, and much of it could not be removed. This experience changed him and became a source of his wisdom.
He often told us his war stories, and although he never voiced it, he was affected more by the grief he felt for his fellow soldiers than by his own injuries. Many of his friends were severely wounded and he saw so many of them die. After his own injury, he spent months in a hospital overseas, along with other soldiers who were wounded in action; many were so young at the time, barely out of high school, and much younger than he was. Dad often used his war stories to teach us about the bigger picture whenever we were unhappy about some insignificant incident in our lives. Doing so helped him give us a better sense of proportion about our own minor problems.
Looking back, it is obvious how deeply affected he was by what had happened to him. And yet, we were ignorant of the immense toll the war took on him. We listened to his stories the way we’d read history books about the war, from a detached perspective, not knowing any better. We couldn't comprehend what he had experienced or what it truly meant to be a wounded veteran, not having walked in his shoes. It wasn’t until we were mature adults that we began to better understand. To us as children, our father’s stories didn't mean what they do now. Our parents’ generation was deeply affected by those wartime experiences, and they made tremendous sacrifices to build a better future for all of us.
In hindsight, I can see that my father was awake in a way that we were not. He was aware of so much that we had not yet learned. But he also had a wonderful sense of humor and made us laugh a lot, and he was quite witty. One of his most significant lessons was not to worry about yesterday or tomorrow, but to live in the present. This was something he’d learned through seeing so much suffering and sorrow in the wars, which taught him to be grateful and to focus on the present.
To help us master this approach, whenever we were having a difficult time dealing with an experience we’d had, he’d tell us to ask ourselves the following: “Where is the past? Do you see it?” Then he’d say, “It’s not here now! Learn from it, and be peaceful and happy for today.” With a house full of children–especially with many of us just a year apart–there was bound to be some kind of confrontation every day. But our father always helped us find better ways to look at things.
One particular incident stands out. I was a young teenager and very upset because I couldn't find my pink sweater, which I wanted to wear to school. I cried as I stomped all over the house trying to find it, upsetting the entire household and disrupting breakfast. In his wisdom, Dad said, “It’s the end of the world! Everything must come to a standstill this very moment! We all have to stop living and do everything we can to find that pink sweater!” And he said this loudly and boldly. Everyone stopped, not help me look, but to absorb the lesson he was teaching us. How ridiculous was my behavior! Imagine, with all that was going on, with each of us getting ready for school, our Mom making oatmeal and getting our lunches together, and the youngest brothers and sisters sitting at the table, some in highchairs, waiting to be fed, and all I could think about was that I couldn't find my sweater! But the blessing was that we all got the message and started laughing. Dad had a gift for getting us to look at and laugh at ourselves.
Whenever one of my brothers had a task that they didn't want to do because it might interfere with their plans, or if their plans had fallen through, they’d upset the entire household because they weren't getting what they wanted. You could just feel the tension in the air, and that’s when Dad would say to Mom in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “I wonder what they’d do if they were fighting in the war and got stuck in a foxhole for a week, without anything to drink or eat for days, and even had to relieve themselves right where they were so the enemy wouldn't capture them.” Mom would be very quiet, recognizing what he was trying to do. And then he’d ask, “When are they going to wake up?”
He saw was us getting upset over meaningless things, and then taught us to question our own thinking and motives. He would encourage us to ask ourselves one of his favorite questions: “What is the purpose of this?” The question led to tremendous insight, and was a simple, intelligent thing to teach us to ask ourselves. It would help us make better choices by focusing on the end result that we truly wanted.
Sometimes the blessed words of wisdom from our parents didn't seem important to us, or else we didn't yet understand the full meaning of the loving guidance they were offering, which was intended to help us live a better, more plentiful life, without having to learn all those lessons the hard way. But it was futile, and despite our parents’ efforts, most of us ended up doing things the hard way, anyway. Now, from the perspective of adulthood‒ having matured and gone through our own personal hardships‒we believe that their guidance must have come from God because it was so sound and true.
Like most people, it is only after we become adults that we recognize how wise our parents were. For example, I now see my father’s strictness as we were growing up as an expression of love and wisdom, and a reflection of his desire to spare us the pain he’d experienced. It is what I would hope to do for my own children, by instructing them in any aspect of sacred wisdom. But our father was so much greater than I realized as a child, something that comes with an adult’s perspective gained through personal suffering and hardship. Dad carried the essence of his experience in a heart that, too, had lived through pain and sorrow.
When he passed away in 1988, Dad was honored in all the Philadelphia newspapers for his contributions to the city, from fathering all of us to serving in World War II and the Korean War, and for his great artistic accomplishments. In this way, the entire city mourned with us.
Imprinted Wisdom ~ Catherine Nagle
Causes Catherine Nagle Supports
Westwind Foster Family Agency, Christian Children's Fund, Compassion International, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Invisible Children, Save the Children