The Grunt Work of Grace

When my husband told me that he had hired a recovering drug addict to do some carpentry work in the house this past week, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The man needed work, my husband explained, he came highly recommended by a close friend, and he could get the job done as quickly as we liked.

And so that’s how I came to meet Dan. Tall, skinny, and shaky, he entered our home and gazed admiringly at its wood interior.
“This is very nice,” he said almost in a whisper, as he ran bony fingers along the pine molding. “Such a nice house.”

When my husband introduced us, Dan turned his head slightly sideways and his eyes darted from somewhere above my head down to his own weathered work boots.

“Nice to meet you,” he mumbled. “Good morning.”
Then he familiarized himself with the location of the lumber and saws, pulled out his tape measure, and got to work.
With his long gray ponytail pulled through the back of a greasy baseball cap, tattooed arms, and swarthy skin, Dan did not look at all like the kind of person who normally visits our home. The children, who had been warned to stay out of “Mr. Dan’s” way, watched him from a cautious distance. Even the dog, normally an obnoxious pest with either too much barking or too much affection when company calls, observed him coolly from the front doorway.
As I watched Dan work, I recalled a conversation I once overheard at a restaurant where I worked years ago. Some waitresses gathered in the kitchen were gossiping about a coworker. She was too old to wear such short skirts, they said. Her legs were gross. No wonder she couldn’t keep a man. Her hairstyle was outdated, and what was up with all that makeup anyway?
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“Face it. She’s trashy,” one young waitress finally concluded as she picked at a pink polished fingernail.

I kept quiet, but what another woman said next shamed me for holding my tongue.
“I think,” she said quietly, “that she looks like someone who has had a harder life than mine.”
That’s exactly what Dan looked like to me: someone who has had a harder life than mine. But for all of his complicated past and difficult current circumstances — “clean and sober” but physically feeble, unemployed, and without a driver’s license — Dan had a childlike simplicity about him.
When I prepared him lunch the first day and pressed him for his preferences — white or wheat? mustard or mayo? — he just shrugged.
“I’m not fussy,” he almost apologized.
He requested a glass of water, but when I suggested soda, his face lit up.
“Soda would be better,” he grinned, avoiding my eyes.
Despite my invitation to join us at the dining table, Mr. Dan took his lunch plate and a tall glass of Diet Coke to a lawn chair he pulled into the shade behind the house, at the edge of the woods. There, he ate his lunch and smoked cigarettes, carefully extinguishing the butts and depositing them in his fanny pack before returning to work.
As awkward as Dan was making small talk in my kitchen, he was at home with wood and work. Noise filled the house and sawdust flew through the air as he sawed, hammered, drilled, and chiseled. He trimmed out doorways and routered window sills with precision. He produced perfect corners and smooth edges in record time.
When my husband arrived home from work hours later and pronounced the work “perfect,” Dan swallowed a smile and squirmed with pleasure at the sound of praise. Dan’s “harder life than mine” had turned this former motorcycle gang member into something so pure and plain that even his hardened exterior couldn’t hide it.
I want something as pure and plain as that.
I know at least one of the reasons why God sent Dan to work in my home this week. How else to get this distracted mother of eight to compare the details of her days — the intangible and yet important work of raising souls to know, love, and serve God — with those of a broken man who simply works and simply trusts?
Dan’s “harder life than mine” gives him enviable ease of faith. In a conversation with my husband, he revealed some near-misses he survived while living a wild life on the edge of destruction.
“I’m not sure who it is,” he said, “but someone’s watching out for me. I’ve got some kind of an angel.”
Me too.
Throughout my life, God has showered me with grace upon grace, gift upon gift, and yet still I struggle to believe sometimes. Is God really there? Does He truly know me and love me? Does He care at all about the details of my days?
Today, Dan’s lawn chair sits empty at the edge of the woods. Like him, I want to keep my head down and focus on my work. But most of all, I want to trust. I want to know that whatever kinds of mistakes I might have made in the past, God loves me and wants what is best for me.
Mr. Dan’s work here is done. But mine is just beginning.


  • Danielle Bean

    Danielle Bean, a mother of eight, is Editorial Director of Faith & Family. She is also author of My Cup of Tea: Musings of a Catholic Mom (Pauline 2005) and Mom to Mom, Day to Day: Advice and Support for Catholic Living (Pauline 2007). Her blog is a source of inspiration, encouragement, and support for Catholic women of all ages and life stages.

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