Up Front and Personal

Those Quotidian Irritants

By Frank Bolton

If you look at the backsplash behind our kitchen sink here in Brooklyn, you will see a New Yorker cartoon by Victoria Roberts. A bespectacled couple stands on either side of the opened door of a dishwasher. The man is saying, “I will always be better at loading the dishwasher, Marie. Can we live with that?”

Regardless of how good the dishwasher is or how many jets of water spray onto dirty dishes, if the dirtiest part of a dish is facing away from hot, soapy water, it is less likely to be cleaned, as I have pointed out many times.

In the concluding chapter of his book “My Life with the Saints,” Jesuit Father James Martin quotes Pope John XXIII, declared a saint by Pope Francis in 2014, from “Journal of a Soul,” his autobiography: “I am not St. Aloysius nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character and the different conditions of my life.”

According to recent statistics, nearly 90% of Americans live in a household with someone else. This ‘condition’ requires being aware of the strengths, weaknesses, and eccentricities of those we live with: recent college graduates (some of them may still have roommates while some have returned home), the parents of those returned students, religious living in community, parents of small children or teenagers, priests sharing a rectory, or in the case of my wife and me, empty-nesters. The small irritants encountered because of this proximity may be magnified during this time of COVID.

But rather than being a roadblock on the way to holiness, they can be seen as grace-filled moments, offering an opportunity for spiritual growth. The 6th and the 7th commandments are linked to the 9th and the 10th. The first two deal with thoughts; the latter two, with action. The same can be said
about our reaction to as small an irritant as finding dirty dishes in the recently-run dishwasher or hair from trimming a beard festooning the bottom of the bathroom sink. If the person emptying the dishwasher hadn’t been thinking about why the dishes were still dirty, he would not be tempted to comment. If the person about to wash her hands in the bathroom dwells on the hairs in the sink, the conversation over breakfast may be less pleasant than it might have been. Thought and action.

“[Growing] gradually into the person I am meant to be” is the path to holiness, according to Father Martin. I believe that path lies in our setting aside the time to reflect on our daily actions. In the quiet of one’s soul, we can review our day.

St. Ignatius Loyola thought that the twice-daily examen from his Spiritual Exercises was a gift that came directly from God.

If we take the time, we can gradually change our thoughts and our attitudes — and thus our words and actions. We can open the dishwashers of our lives and, finding a few dirty dishes, simply bring
them to the sink to wash them. How they ended up not scrubbed clean is irrelevant. How we deal with that remaining dirt is what moves us to — or away from — holiness.


Frank Bolton and his wife Barbara are parishioners at St. Saviour’s in Brooklyn but are attending Mass at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral on NET-TV during this time of COVID-19.

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