Empty hands

Last week, while I was in Italy, my luggage managed to remain in Gatwick airport. No doubt it had a very enjoyable time, surrounded by lots of other lost luggage. At any rate, it was only found and correctly identified 48 hours before my return flight, so we were only reunited when I got back.

I therefore spent more time than I would have liked worrying about what I was going to wear, toiletries and so on (regardless of what it says in the gospel!). The sun was blazing down, the thermometer spent all day over 30, and so I needed summer clothes, preferably enough changes to see me through the week. I managed to get a couple of things from a friend, but unfortunately, the sorry truth quickly dawned that my friends and cousins come in all shapes and sizes... except mine! Meanwhile, despite the weather, the shops were filling up with autumn ranges, so I had to grab what I could, while it was available. I ended up wearing an eclectic mix of items, some of which I would never have worn in ordinary circumstances - but at least they only cost a few euros each!

All that was annoying and time consuming, but I kept telling myself there was nothing valuable in my suitcase, no essential medicine or irreplaceable heirlooms. Yes, I kicked myself over the inclusion of one or two things which might now be irretrievably lost, but decided not to dwell on this. Even so... there were other things I really regretted not having with me: lots of gifts.

People in Palazzo rarely visit each other with empty hands - or indeed allow a visitor to leave empty handed. Freshly picked fruit and vegetables, home made jam, pickles, wine, biscuits... this is the traditional currency, according to each one's capacity, and invariably given in generous amounts. My currency is shortbread, 'English' tea bags, Bird's custard powder for one friend, an Oxford calendar for another. All bought in pleased anticipation of the enjoyment they would give, all occupying over half my suitcase, all sitting somewhere in Gatwick, unopened, un-given, un-enjoyed.

So I found myself visiting people and feeling obliged to explain why I had arrived empty handed. Time and again I was told not to worry... you always go to so much trouble... it doesn't matter... that's not why we invited you over... On market day I went into town and bought some small potted cyclamens, and sweets for a friend's child - so more protestations, more you-shouldn't-haves.

And, of course, my empty hands were filled: with wine, jam, maize flour biscuits, last year's grape jelly, this year's just-picked grapes - sometimes in addition to a delicious meal. I had to buy a small case, to bring back all this largesse, as well as my new clothes! Meanwhile, with each gift, I made my protestations, feeling genuinely humbled by my friends' generosity. It's easy to receive when you feel you have given; far harder to be a cheerful recipient when your hands were empty to begin with...


  1. A beautiful reflection. I always find it hard to receive gifts and help graciously. Someone once told me giving isn't giving until it costs, which I try to keep in mind and give more generously of my time (which is dear to me). I am always fascinated by the dynamic of giving and receiving, not least in a Eucharistic context, and this post has brought back some of those thoughts. Thank you.

  2. Your reference to the Eucharist has made me realise that when it comes to being an empty-handed "cheerful recipient", receiving from God is the exception. Maybe because I know that with God I can never come anywhere close to matching love for love, I am less embarrassed by the poverty of what I have to offer..? It's an interesting thought.


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