The Grindstone

An analogy for restoring a cutting edge to evangelization



During a homily, the priest lifted our bored faces by boldly declaring, “So not everyone’s going to heaven.” A matronly woman sitting next to me looked up for a moment from thumbing her cell phone. Somehow assured that her Judgment Day was not imminent, she then returned to marking the Joyful and Sorrowful Mysteries via social media.

Toddlers were fidgeting more than usual, because their parents were too. A father stifled his yawn for fear it would spread to his wife and kids. His boy popped bubblegum and woke lots of drowsy folks. That 20-minute sermon was so dull. What was missing?

The question lingered until one day, Lou, an 81-year-old Catholic friend of mine, complained about the dull Sunday sermons at his own parish.

“Sixty years ago it wasn’t that way,” he said. “Back then the Mass was in Latin,  shrouded with a sense of mystery and awe, when women covered their heads with black shawls, their lips moving in whispered prayers while fingering their rosaries. There was standing room only at Mass every week. Sermons back then had fire and brimstone. Now I have to listen to Protestant radio preachers for inspiration. Our priests have lost it.”

He got me thinking about what’s missing. My mind flashed back to my grandfather, Michael, who, at age 78, was a tall, large-framed, muscular man. When I was 14, he was in robust health, with hazel eyes, a full crop of dark hair, and a gray handlebar mustache. Leaving his wife and son behind for later passage here, he had immigrated to New York from Italy in 1902. Unable to speak English but trained in farm work from his early childhood, he knew, with no more than a sixth-grade education, the secrets of making barren soil productive with manure, compost, and loving husbandry.

His son (my dad) was successful in business and bought a half acre in Melrose, MA, where Grandpa planted Concord grapes, peach trees, and tilled a large garden every year to grow a variety of vegetables like cucumbers, spinach, and lettuce. We kids sowed seeds, hunted for tomato worms, and picked red, sweet plum tomatoes. Mother then canned them for her luscious tomato recipes laced with fresh herbs.

Grandpa selected the best tomato seeds for next year and stored them to dry in the tool shed beneath our house. Herbs like basil and rosemary hung from a nail on the edge of a shelf. He’d neatly arranged tools on wall pegs. When he visited us for a weekend, he’d sleep on a cot next to his sacred possession: a treadle grindstone enshrined in a dark corner. Above it, a string of garlic bulbs dangled as if to drive off demons.

Early one morning I entered the tool shed and found him as usual sharpening his knives on that grindstone ― a gray wheel about a foot in diameter with a flat 2-inch rim and a peddle crank.

He pumped the foot treadle while his hands skillfully stroked a blade’s edge on the stone’s rotating rim. Water dribbled from a suspended can to cool the stone lest it overheat and distort the blade. It seemed he didn’t notice me enter, he was so preoccupied — as though mesmerized by the flashing sparks of steel on stone. His hands performed the ancient practice ― a cloaked liturgy chorused by the grindstone’s enchanting drone. I was oblivious to the charisma and mystique of a contemplative holy man in action.

“How long do you have to sharpen that, Grandpa?”

He didn’t understand English much, so he grunted a response. An hour later, he nicked shavings from the surface of fingernails, to show me his knives were razor sharp.


I am now in my late seventies, as was my grandfather back then. This remembrance of his devotional focus helps explain why typical Catholic homilies have no cutting edge. Parish pastors are often too busy and overworked with worldly affairs to rise early every morning for deep prayer and contemplation before work, in order to sharpen their dulled wits at the grindstone.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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