My Cousin’s Fat Lip (and the Holiness of the Ordinary)

Editor’s Note: Today, we welcome a guest contribution from Stephen Martin, author of the wonderful new book The Messy Quest for Meaning: Five Catholic Practices for Finding Your Vocation. I encourage you to enjoy Stephen’s writing at MessyQuest.com and to pick up his book for yourself or a loved one today. LMH

One of the clearest memories of my childhood involves a blood-stained doorknob and a cabinet full of canned vegetables.

It dates back about 30 years to a little town in the mountains of western Pennsylvania during a  summer visit to my mom’s very large family. One of my cousins and I were playing hide-and-go-seek outside our Grandma Marie’s house. Crouching low behind a hedge, I suddenly heard an odd whooping sound, a high-pitched holler that sounded like somebody being pinched repeatedly on the behind.
I stood just in time to see my cousin dash toward the house, both hands pressed to his mouth, yelping hysterically. To be fair, we’re both half-Italian, but, even then, he was not usually quite so dramatic. What the heck was going on? I’d like to say I rushed to his aid. In fact, I stood there dumbfounded as he yanked open the screen door and charged into the kitchen.

Slowly, I headed there myself, noticing just before I reached for the doorknob that it was smeared with blood. Fastidious even then, I gingerly opened it and stepped into the kitchen. My cousin’s hollering had ceased. He sat quietly at the table with an ice pack on his lip.

What just happened?, I asked him. And do you realize it cost me a really good hiding spot? It turned out he’d slipped in the alley, where a recent rainstorm had made the loose gravel especially slick, and his mouth had smashed into the road.

What seemed to stun him the most, however, was the reaction of our grandmother, usually smiling and kind. When he’d burst into the kitchen, she’d been stacking cans in a cabinet. She didn’t even look in his direction. He hollered for help. She stacked another can. He yelled again. She stacked the last can.

Then she finally turned and said, “Now what’s all this fuss about?”

It’s a story we laugh about now. But we weren’t exactly laughing then. This wasn’t how most adults we knew reacted to spurting blood – usually a first-class ticket to undivided attention. On the other hand, most adults we knew hadn’t given birth to 11 children. Who was Grandma Marie exactly?

She was, I can see now, a lot of things – most prominently a devout Catholic, the font of spirituality in our family. She’d seen 80 years of bloody lips, of children getting sick or going off to war, of waking up first in a freezing, crowded house and washing endless rounds of dirty clothes and dishes, not to mention untold hours spent playing a Winnie the Pooh board game at which I cheated relentlessly. She wasn’t the kind of person to have personal mottos. But if she’d had one, it would have been, “Do what needs to be done!”

A few years ago, I read He Leadeth Me, the autobiography of Fr. Walter Ciszek, an American Jesuit priest who spent the 1950s in a brutal Siberian labor camp after being falsely accused of spying.

Ciszek addresses our tendency to discount the daily details of our lives as “so constant, so petty, so humdrum and routine, and to seek to discover instead some other and nobler ‘will of God.’ But, “the plain and simple truth,” Ciszek reminds us, “is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people, and problems. The trick is to learn to see that – not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God’s grace, but every day.”

And then I received my own flash of insight: there is a holiness of the ordinary – and that’s exactly how Grandma Marie quietly went about her own obscure, demanding, extraordinary life. She did what needed to be done moment to moment and she did it with (sometimes crusty) love, regardless of whether she wanted to do it, secure in her belief that there was a larger purpose there somewhere  – and if that meant one of her 26 grandchildren had to wait 10 more seconds to get his bloody lip cleaned while she stocked her pantry, then so be it. How else could you raise 11 kids without losing your mind?

She left a lesson I do my best to take to heart, and maybe, very slowly, it’s taking root: Your life is going to be messy. But you don’t have to clean it up all at once; just focus on those green beans in front of you right now.

Stephen Martin is a speechwriter and journalist who blogs at www.messyquest.com. His first book The Messy Quest for Meaning: Five Catholic Practices for Finding Your Vocation, was just released by Sorin Books.

Copyright 2012 Stephen Martin

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