Permit me another parable, showing the parallels of family-life and the conversion of cultures…
Part tradition part compulsion, when my wife is away I try to do a project on the house. She once did a retreat and I redid the dining room ceiling tiles, rewinding the same video and feeding three toddlers chicken nuggets for three days. Of course, I never pre-announce these projects in case something goes horribly wrong and I have to cover it up before she gets back.
Last week my wife went to see her mom back in New York and my three oldest were at different Benedictine College youth camps. Our eat-in kitchen table had seen eight-years of service and looked like it had taken shrapnel. So I thought refinishing a table top can’t be that hard. Plus, the youngest three love chicken nuggets.
After removing the legs of the table and getting it onto the back deck, yours truly, armed with my two little sanders, quickly realized that this was going to be a problem. Lots of vibration, but the table top looked the same. Actually, it looked worse. There was no turning back now.
To the rescue, my more-than-competent woodworking brother-in-law who has a belt sander. He lent me the sander and said something about “elbow grease.”
“Elbow grease”? Isn’t that why we have power tools? Well… it took me nearly six hours to get the old finish off the table top, and I chewed up a few belts in the process, since the finish goops up if you aren’t an expert sander. Let’s not talk about the slight ridges and dips the table acquired in the process.
Six hours is a lot of time to reflect. It was my own personal retreat. Kudos to Johnny our eleven-year-old who handled dinner for the crew (which was better than nuggets) so my re-finishing OCD could play itself out.
I thought of my own bad habits, those stains and scratches on my once baptismally lustrous soul. Why can’t I get rid of them forever after one easy confession? Why can’t I after three hundred easy confessions? Elbow grease. Patience. (Nothing “easy” about it, but "let the tool do the work" demands that you know a lot about how the tool works.) Concentration. And a load of other qualities my brother-in-law has but I have never seemed able to muster. The Holy Spirit is more power than I'll ever need. But I still need to understand much more how best to collaborate with that power and put in my effort to be a soul (re-)surfacer.
I thought about our culture. And the nicks and scratches and stains that make it look hardly the heir of Christian cultures of the past. It is going to take time, and patience and, barring divine intervention, -which He doesn’t seem keen on using because our work is good for us,- spiritual elbow grease the likes of which we haven’t seen in this country ever. We have to use the grit necessary to get the job done. Otherwise we’re just spinning our sanding wheels. And we have to accept that this generation may just be one in a series of sanding belts that will never see the full job done.
Our table was so bad you couldn’t see much grain anymore. My wife had once said she preferred a lighter shade. Well… once the bare wood is revealed, the stain goes on pretty easy. Then the varnish. And sanding (this time my little vibrating jobbers were good enough) and more varnish. And sanding. And more varnish. And leave the ceiling fan on overnight. And sanding and varnish for breakfast.
What I need after a good confession is a new shade. A new schedule. A new routine. Then readjust it, and polish it. And readjust it, and polish it. And patience with myself. The varnish of grace-filled prayer and the sanding of sacrifice.
Our culture is going to need a different shade of Gospel. Not a different Gospel, but yes a New Evangelization. New ways to present the old truths. And then lots of patience and polish. Lots. Like you can’t believe how much. Fresh new coats every generation, unless we want to re-surface every year… (believe me, we don’t.)
My wife is never too ecstatic to see the job done, because there’s always that apprehension when I say I have a surprise and she suspects a project and thinks about all that could have gone wrong. She asked when was the last time the kids had a piece of fruit, but, her well-justified worry for me aside, was happy about the table.
You can really see the grain. Not exactly French country kitchen magazine worthy, but not bad. I’ll take it. I hope eight coats of polyurethane are enough for another 8 years. If not, I can lightly sand and reapply. That will take a lot less time than the belt sanding. You can also see the imperfections I added in with my amateur sanding. But even they look nice with the varnish.
I wonder how beautiful our souls will be in heaven, when we shine with that glorious light of fulfillment in Christ. Even our struggles on earth may acquire beauty, when they are stepping stones to that civilization of justice and love that Blessed John Paul II often wrote about.
Until then, let’s dream of what our culture can be, when the deep-grain truths of who we are shine through, and the sheen of Christ's grace gives them both luster and protection from harm.
We have plenty of time to dream of that while our nostrils fill with old shellac and sawdust and we're pouring on the elbow grease.
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Reprinted with permission from the Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College.