Friday, December 31, 2010

An Open Letter to Volunteers

We’d like to tell you the great secret of volunteering at the Catholic Worker. It’s more properly a mystery, not unlike the Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark. It wasn’t as if Jesus ever really concealed anything from anyone, it’s just that, at first, only the woman with the spikenard hair balm could see the implications of the situation clearly.

That’s what so few of us do here – see the implications of these women’s situation clearly. It’s not so much that we’re called to do anything more expensive or time-consuming than paint their nails, or condition their hair, or just break bread with them. The secret is to simultaneously realize the implications of their situation.

In order to do that we might start with listening, which is a good deal more complicated that it first appears.

Now I know very little about listening. Had I not been confronted with people who wanted to speak to me for fifteen years, I wouldn’t know squat. But since they were in my house, they were hard to avoid, so learn I did.

One of the enduring realizations I’ve gleaned from my sojourn is a startling paraphrase of a vile drug fable: “God will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no God.” While undeniably true, none of us seem to grasp the obvious implication: Poor people spend a great deal of time listening to God.

As a result, there is a chance than the poor are fairly connected up there, and, as a result there is an good chance that, were we to confine our gifts to the spiritual realm, we could be “bringing coal to Newcastle.”

Listening might well go better if we could adopt the mental posture of a student rather than of a teacher. After all, we are all hoping we never become homeless, and we are working to minimize the negative aspects of their homelessness by listening to them, so what advice do we really have to offer them about being homeless?

What then shall we students study with our newfound technique of listening?

A first guess might involve those things that are priceless, the virtues: candor, humility, charity, longsuffering, forgiveness. These are the things that often impress those who listen to the homeless. These are learned capabilities that, like most human studies, involve both book work and field study.

The bookwork is the Sunday homily, the years of developing a mental map of the person of Jesus Christ so that we can intuit how to imitate him. The fieldwork is listening to the homeless, while bearing in mind the great rejoicing in Heaven because we have become enrolled as students in the secret school of virtue earned vicariously by another’s suffering.

Understanding the implications of their situation as they imitate Christ, if we can.

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