Recently I helped my father clean his basement. The need for basements to be cleaned, as you well know, is one of the most lamentable consequences of original sin. As we went through boxes of old tax returns, picture albums of long lost relatives and recipes for beautiful Italian meals, I noticed in a dark corner a rather sturdy, old toolbox. It was made of thick metal and was covered in mildew.
Curious, I opened it and discovered that it was absolutely full of tools. My father noticed and quietly said, “Those were your grandfather’s tools.” I held the various heavy, steel implements in my hands and beheld part of my family’s history. All of the stories I remember from my childhood of my grandfather’s uncanny ability to fix things — anything — was laid out in front of me. This was how he did it! With these tools — my grandfather’s tools.
Over the past few years I have developed a hobby of working on old cars. I am decidedly an amateur and I am indeed fortunate to have a mechanic for a good friend who actually knows what he is doing. But I have found that working on mechanical things has become a great stress reliever. Being a priest, I am blessed to be around people all day long, aiding them in dealing with very human problems. Problems that rarely are clear cut — problems that seemingly never go away.
But changing the oil and replacing the brakes is beautifully straightforward! Things can be fixed and restored to new again. How wonderful! But in order to achieve this noble goal, a budding young mechanic needs — tools. Preferably the older the better, and now I had them — tools passed down from father to son to grandson. Tools that could make things work again — tools that could make things right again. I was so very, very happy when my father looked at me with a knowing smile and said, “Take them, they’re yours.”
Things get broken in life. Much of our lives are spent undoing knots, cleaning up spilled milk and solving conflicts. I think the admission price to adulthood is fixing mistakes and solving problems — especially our own. Of course, one of the hard experiences in life is that some things simply cannot be fixed. We try and try on our own, but it isn’t possible. I am referring now to the mystery of human suffering, the death of a loved one, the struggle against an addiction or many other such things. Increasingly so today, we find these problems to be overwhelming. Despite the new tools of modern technology, the omnipresent screen and instant communication, we are often vexed when things cannot be fixed. Our new tools do not always work so well. Perhaps we need to find the right tool?
The “old tools” of our ancestors reflected a deep faith in God, in his love and in his providential plan for their lives. Chief among our grandfather’s and grandmother’s spiritual tools were a deep abiding faith in Jesus Christ and a trusting in his goodness that all would work out for the best. Of course, their faith was often imperfect — just like ours — but they did believe. And when the storms of life came, they needed this faith. The “old tools” of faith were basically a friendship with God. With this friendship came a strength which could move mountains. This was not some cheap, flimsy tool — but some pretty stout stuff. We would do well to recover the faith and Catholic traditions of our ancestors because not everything new is for the best. Sometimes old tools worked better.
I lugged my grandfather’s toolbox upstairs, out of the basement, into the bright light of a summer day. I then arrayed the old tools out in front of me while I carefully cleaned and oiled them. The sun beat down on my balding head, while my father sat on an old lawn chair silently watching me with moist and knowing eyes. The torch had been passed. Old tools had become new again. And for a brief, grace-filled moment, all was well in the world.
Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.