There is nothing guaranteed to put your character defects front and center faster than volunteer work. I don't care what type of work it is, or for whom. I don't care if you work for (IMHO) the forces of good or the forces of evil - if you are volunteering your time you are bound to find yourself face-to-face with your own shortcomings. If you are smart, and truly looking to grow as a human, you will not open your mouth about those shortcomings until you have had a chance to examine them. If you are incredibly selfish and self-centered, you get to cause a fuss in the middle of whatever is going on at the time, thereby forging a reputation as a big pain-in-the-neck and becoming the type of person who has the phrase 'bless their heart' repeated after their name over and over and over again.
My biggest challenge right now is that I am stretched, physically, to the limit. I'm kinda running on 'tired' all the time. Even though I find that I am sleeping better now that I am back on the 11pm to 8am shift, I have to face that fact that I am 53 years old and combat Rheumatoid Arthritis. I get worn out. Sometimes, I am a lot more worn out that I even realise and it is not until I get home from whatever I am doing that I literally collapse.
The Parish Festival was this past weekend and it was so much fun. Friday night was my night with Stephen. He came with me and actually helped out during the Spaghetti Dinner (no Catholic Church Festival is ever complete without a Spaghetti Dinner on a Friday night -it's akin to being a Methodist without a covered-dish supper). He donned his bright orange t-shirt and grabbed a big plastic garbage bag. That kid emptied every table of discarded paper goods faster than you could say 'New Video Game'. After he had worked for about 2 hours, I handed him the money Grandma had put aside for his dinner (like most boys of almost-13, he was not hungry for anything but bread and the occasional meatball, to the Knights of Columbus had let the boys graze for free in the kitchen) and the advanced tickets I had bought for the rides. He headed out of Father O'Hare Hall with two buddies he had found - guys I knew from the Parish that he knew from school and wrestling - and hit the fair.
Stephen had a blast.
I stayed inside and helped with the clean up and putting out the dessert. I looked up over the crowd and saw a friend....sitting alone at one of the huge tables. She is recently divorced, a tireless worker for the Parish but a very attractive woman in her 40's. She looked tired and sad....and I made my way over to where she sat and asked, "So how you doing?".
Her answer was what I expect from a woman determined to live her Catholic Faith no matter what. "Things must be really good", she said. "God's plan is perfect and so everything must be fine, even if I don't understand it".
And then her eyes filled with tears.
See, she is finding herself being left out of a lot of things now that her husband walked out because he didn't want to be married anymore and then immediately moved in with another woman, from a different background, and is now married to her outside the Church until the annullment comes through - the wife he left is the pariah. Why?
Because she is now single and very pretty. She is smart and successful and looks great in a pantsuit or jeans and so......
Women are funny creatures. We will speak of 'sisterhood' and how we will be there for each other, but the reality is that we are so afraid of losing the men we have attached ourselves to that we will walk over the bleeding body of another woman to keep our relationships 'safe'.
The sad reality is we know, usually from personal experience, that marriage vows are rarely respected in the real world. Men break them and other women ignore them and so we are afraid.....we are afraid to invite the widow to dinner, the divorcee to the movies or the single older woman to tea. We are afraid....and yet, we call ourselves Catholics or Christians or women of Faith.
Jesus Christ says to us "Be not afraid". Throughout the Old Covenant writings, God tells us to trust Him, to not be afraid of whatever is going on around us. But we are. We end relationships out of fear that our husbands will leave. We end the lives we carry in our bodies out of fear of rejection or hardship. We end our own lives because we fear that physically it will be just too tough.
We sever our religious ties because we are afraid that we are missing out on fun.
I have come to the conclusion that the fear most of us suffer from, the fear that drives our character defects, is so self-centered as to be laughable. We are afraid that what we have we will lose or what we want we won't get.....and so we take action (or stay frozen) in a desperate attempt to stay safe. Rather than take a chance and just do the next right thing, no matter what it is, we huddle under the cover of righteous thought and refuse to venture forward in our own lives.
So what is the solution?
The Sacraments of Reconcilliation, the Sacrament of Holy Communion....the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. These award us the sanctifying grace necessary to do the impossible - ignore our own fear and do the right thing with confidence. Of myself and by myself I am unable to be anything other than a comode-hugging drunk....but with regular reception of the Eucharist and the Grace of Absolution, I am able to walk up to people I fear do not like me and say things like, "hey, how's it going?".
I have also learned when to stay quiet - like when I don't quite share the same political opinions as the group - and when to speak up. Telling people I am not too sure about Sarah Palin yet while having a smoke out by the garbage bin with 10 members of the Knights of Columbus might not be really condusive to unity, but telling it to two of them later while cleaning up spaghetti sauce stained pots and pans seemed smarter. I did not get attacked and they (both older, grandfatherly men) said, "well, it sounds like you need to do more research and pray".
WOW - now there's an idea.
So, I continue this journey. I look at my own defects of character and then I see if I am being practical in my application of the solution - righteous action, rather than smug complacency. I am ready to explain and defend, as instructed by St Peter after the first Council of The Church in Jerusalem, and I remember that I stand on the shoulders of giants as a member of The Catholic Church.
If Ignatius of Antioch can do it....so can I.