Malta Evening of Recollection
The Advent Virtue of Patience
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
Dec. 17, 2019
As most of you know, I live on the corner of Mulberry and North Charles Streets. It is a busy urban intersection with a constant flow of traffic, including emergency vehicles on their way either to Mercy Hospital or Hopkins. Having moved to Baltimore from leafy Connecticut some seven years ago, I’ve become inured to the sounds of the city and, in fact, I take them for granted, that is, except for one sound – the sound of angry and impatient motorists incessantly blowing their horns. It is especially bad when the streets are blocked due to events such as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Baltimore “running festival”. Not only are there horns blowing, but there is also shouting.
This is not to say that, behind the wheel, I’m always angelic. I’m not. I’m not exactly a peach when I’m stuck behind a drivers who are poking along, only to discover that they are talking on the phone or texting as they drive. And I’m not the only one who gets impatient. Fr. Bianco can also display a bit of impatience and even the vaguest bit of temper as we traverse local streets and highways, making our way from here to there! One weekday morning I was scheduled to be in D.C. at 7:30 a.m. We left the house at 5:45 and were immediately stuck in traffic on the B-W Parkway. As we crawled along, we noticed in the next lane, to the right of us, a man in a pick-up truck, dressed in fatigues, and loudly shouting vivid epithets against the State of Maryland and its public officials. Father Lou dryly commented, “He’s speaking for me!”
Impatience behind the wheel is only one example of the impatient world we live in. We have come to expect everything to move with the speed of lightening, just like our Tweets, Instagram, and text messages. But real life isn’t like that virtual world which absorbs so much of our time. The real world is still a place inhabited by human beings who are beset by all kinds of intractable problems and sufferings that do not admit of fast or easy solution. The real world is a place where human hearts change slowly, if at all. It turns out that our impatient world requires us to be very patient indeed, not only with the annoying external circumstances in which we find ourselves but more importantly with ourselves and with those whom we love. As St. Paul put it, “love is patient; love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:4).
The Meaning of Patience
So what is the meaning of the word “patience”? The word “patient”, you’ll be happy to know, comes from the Latin word “patiens” which is the present participle of the deponent Latin verb “patior” which, taken literally, means, “I am suffering”. So, “patience” is the quality, the virtue of being “long-suffering”. In moral theology it is actually a branch of the virtue of fortitude or courage. As one writer described it, “It enables [us] to endure present evils without sadness or resentment [and to do so] in conformity with God’s will” – and often these evils are caused by other people in our lives.
If we take a quick overview of salvation history, we see that it is a very long exercise in patience – patience on God’s part and patience on the part of God’s people. During Advent we have been revisiting the story of the Chosen People who, for centuries, longed for and awaited the coming of the Messiah. This period of waiting was anything but tranquil. It was filled with upheavals, infidelities, and suffering over every sort. In the midst of these things, God’s People sorely tried God’s patience by their grumbling, their doubts, their infidelities, and even idolatry. Nevertheless God continued to deal patiently with his people and remained with them through the winding ways of their history. God’s patience is summed up in the Book of Deuteronomy where it says, “Know, then, that the Lord your God is God: the faithful God who keeps covenant mercy to the thousandth generation toward those who love him and keep his commandments” (7:9). Indeed, we experience God’s patience as mercy and forgiveness!
But if God was patient with his people – and indeed he was – so too he required patience of his Chosen People be patient as he formed them, through the events of their history, to be a people peculiarly his own. Among God’s Chosen People, there emerged a remnant, a faithful few whose lives were marked by patient endurance, by undying hope, by a readiness to watch, to wait, and pray – and yes, even to suffer persecution for the sake of what God had promised. Indeed, the “hopes and fears of all the years” are summed up in Mary who was watching, waiting, and praying when the Angel addressed her as “full of grace” and “blessed among women”.
In our Advent liturgy we re-live, in a compressed form, the ancient history of the Jewish people in their longing for a Messiah. Among the things we are to derive from this experience is a renewal of the virtue of patience in our lives – the virtue of patient waiting. For, as the psalmist urges us, “Wait for the Lord with courage. Be stouthearted and wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:14)
The Meaning of Patience in Our Lives
It’s one thing to remind ourselves of the general meaning of the word “patience” and to reflect however briefly on the role patience in the history of salvation, but quite another to reflect on the meaning of patience in our lives, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves day in and day out. How do we acquire the virtue of patience? How do we live it? How does this virtue of patience come to perfection in our lives?
Acquiring the Virtue of Patience
Well, when it comes to the moral virtues, practice makes perfect. Now, we don’t practice the virtue of patience the way we practice our golf swing. In fact, golf just might be one of those things that causes one to lose patience! Rather, life itself presents plenty of opportunities to practice the virtue of patience, a human virtue, a moral virtues, a firm attitude or disposition of mind and heart that is acquired by repeated human effort, by education and formation, by prayer, and by the action of the Holy Spirit known as sanctifying grace. In a phrase, the more patiently we act, the more patient we become. Experience teaches us that it’s not easy to acquire the virtues, patience among them. We are, after all, wounded by sin – original sin and the sins we commit on our own – and we are living in a world which all too often does not encourage us to be virtuous. That is why we need to pray for patience, seek out the strength of the sacraments, and when we fail, resort to the Sacrament of Reconciliation with some regularity.
And, when it comes to patience, we need to be patient with ourselves when we fail. Paradoxically it is pride that makes us impatient with ourselves when we become impatient or suffer any other kind of moral lapse. Pride is that voice whispering in our ear, “You’re better than that!” By contrast, the virtue of humility helps us to assess our strengths and weaknesses realistically, to know ourselves as the ancient Delphic Oracle urges. When we come to know what sets us off, what gets our goat and grinds our gears – we can take evasive action; we can ward off the impending implosion. If we’re working to acquire patience, or any other virtue for that matter, another tactic is the daily examen, a brief pause in the middle of our busy day to look back on our thoughts, words, and deeds and to ask the question, have I been patient, with God, with myself, with others? And if I’ve been impatient, how have I manifested that? Do I need to make amends?
Living the Virtue of Patience
How, then, do we live the virtue of patience? Perhaps the first place is in our life of prayer. Maybe you’ve noticed that it takes a lot of patience to pray attentively for an extended period of time. There are those mornings in chapel when I think that time has stood still or when I am anxious to bolt from the chapel to get on with the real work of the day. There are also times when we pray for things we sincerely believe we need or things we sincerely believe that our loved ones and friends need. For example, we may pray for a friend with cancer or that a family member return to the practice of the faith – prayer intentions that are far from being frivolous or self-indulgent – and it seems as those no one is listening. It is Jesus himself who teaches us to be not only patient in prayer but also persistent, as with the elderly woman to pesters an unjust judge to grant her a just sentence. Jesus advises us “to pray without ceasing” and to be confident that God hears our cry, even if he does not answer our prayer in just the way we think he should. Think of how long and hard St. Monica prayed for the conversion of her son, Augustine. There must have been times when she felt it was futile to do so but she persisted and God answered her prayers superabundantly in the conversion of St. Augustine.
A second way we can live the virtue of patience is in suffering, our own suffering and that of our loved ones and friends. As we know, suffering comes in a thousand different varieties – sometimes it’s serious illness, sometimes it is psychic pain, sometimes it’s being trapped in an unjust situation or being maligned in public – and in many parts of the world suffering takes the form of incredible deprivation. Indeed, much of the world’s population could not imagine living as we do and having what we have – theirs is a life of real hardship. Most of us don’t like to suffer and we try to avoid it, yet it is indeed inevitable. How easy it is to grumble, to complain, to rail against God – when in fact patience transforms suffering into a crucible of holiness. By bearing our sufferings without sadness or resentment, we grow closely to Jesus who suffered patiently for sinners. Patient suffering is way of sharing in the Cross of Christ and opening our hearts to his redeeming love. Indeed, it is scarcely possible to mature spiritually without some measure of suffering and it is a very powerful and generous gesture to offer our suffering for others, for the sake of some wonderful intention or for the sake of others in difficult straits.
A third way of living the virtue of patience comes to us from St. Paul who writes: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if one has a grievance against another. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you must [forgive one another]” (Col. 3:13). On a daily basis, this might be the most challenging way to live patience, and usually we must practice patience, not with perfect strangers, but with family members and loved ones and neighbors. Isn’t it the case that usually there is that one person at Thanksgiving dinner who is even more annoying than even the giblets! You’ll be happy to know that even after 73 years of marriage, my mom and dad still have perennial, recurring arguments – a sign that they are both healthy and happy! Often, patience will help us be more understanding, to cut others some slack, and to encourage them step by step to improve themselves. Yet sometimes the issues are more serious. Patience does not require us to suffer needless violence or abuse nor does it discourage us from taking appropriate action to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the same. Nor does it mean that we should entertain foolish thoughts as if they were wise or to pretend that the injustice of others is in fact just. Truth and charity and charity in truth are the rule of thumb.
Perfection in Charity
Let me add one more consideration before we conclude. Patience, like most other virtues, admits of degrees. It’s not enough merely to say that we’re no longer impatient or to say that we’ve acquired the virtue of patience and that’s that! No, spiritual writers suggest there are actually three degrees of patience, which I’ll briefly describe in ascending order.
First is to bear difficulties without complaining – either out loud or in our hearts. Just think, that’s Patience 101, that’s “entry level” patience! Second is to bear hardships as a means of making progress in virtue, a means of acquiring self-mastery over all our unruly tendencies, whatever they may happen to be. Third, is to willingly accept and even desire the cross and afflictions out of love for God and to accept them with spiritual joy. I saw this degree of patience in Msgr. Art Valenzano, the former Rector of the Basilica, who suffered and died from leukemia.
By praying for and working to attain the virtue of patience, we derive one another benefit: we never take our Lord for granted. Rather, we begin to get some idea of his patience toward us and as we do so, we open our hearts more widely to him, at Christmas and throughout the year. Thanks for listening! God bless you and keep you always in his love!