I was staying with a relative while a new television set was installed in her living room. The engineer was explaining that her digibox was faulty and she might experience a problem recording programs from certain channels. A mentally alert 92-year-old, who looks and acts much younger than her years, she nonetheless has some hearing difficulties and that day wasn’t able to absorb all that was being said.
I had taken the old TV to an upstairs room when, suddenly, the engineer appeared and said that his customer was having trouble comprehending what he was saying. He seemed agitated and irascible. To me, it was all too clear he would rather be somewhere else. When I went with him back into the lounge, I asked him to go through the procedure again. But, despite listening as carefully as I could, I, too, found the instructions highly complex and confusing because it was obvious the engineer was unable to think outside the box, so to speak.
Try as I might to follow the scientific language he was using and the communication skills he wasn’t, I concluded he had neither the time nor inclination to elucidate matters. Leaving us both bemused, the man headed out through the front door and swiftly onto the next job. As his van went down the drive, I couldn’t help thinking how he must inhabit his closed world day after day, repeating the same old words that had become part of his technical patois but becoming edgy when questioned.
Impatience is a symptom of our fragmented culture—and we don’t have to travel far to discover it. During a visit to the Isle of Wight, off the coast of southern England, I found myself driving carefully along its narrow roads, looking hopefully for a signpost, only to be honked at, glowered at, sworn at, and gestured at several days in a row. Friends who live there smiled when I told them, for it was an all too common experience, they said.
After savoring the unhurried character of the Rule of Saint Benedict at two monasteries on the island, I abruptly found myself entering an alien world where speed, temper, anger, and, in one case, rage formed the highway code. In fact, had it not been for the contemplative spirit I had already imbibed, there might not have been such an equanimity about me.
Patience is a virtue, I was taught as a child, and we find its roots in the bible. According to the Book of Exodus, God is makrothymos, “forbearing” and “long-suffering” (in Hebrew the literal meaning of patient is “slow to anger”). In the Second Letter of Peter, we read that “the Lord is not slow about his promise . . . but is patient (makrothymei) with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Since the moment of the Passion, patience has been a gift of the Spirit granted by the crucified and risen Christ. The Church Fathers frequently spoke of patience as the summa virtus, the greatest virtue and an indispensable ingredient of faith, hope, and love.
Father Enzo Bianchi, founder of an ecumenical monastic community at Bose in Northern Italy, says patience enables Christians to accept the incompleteness of the present and encourages them to take a step back to see the entire picture. Patience and humility are therefore connected. “As we discover that we ourselves are incomplete, we learn to be patient with ourselves,” he writes in Words of Spirituality, a lexicon of the inner life which has often accompanied me on my travels in Europe. “As we recognize the incompleteness and fragility of our relationships with others, we learn to be patient with those around us; and as we confess that the divine plan of salvation has not yet been fully accomplished, we express our patience through our hope, our invocation, and our longing for salvation.”
Father Bianchi believes patience is the virtue of the church that waits for the Lord, living responsibly within the “not yet” of salvation without any attempt to anticipate an end not yet revealed and without proclaiming itself as the fulfilment of God’s design. In refusing the restive approaches of some religious ideologies, patience opts for the “long route” of listening, obeying, and waiting for others and for God. “Patience is respect for the time another needs and awareness of the fact that we experience time together, ‘in the plural,’ and that it is our shared experience of time that makes relationships, communication and love possible.”
The ability to be patient—to accept the time of the other, whether it be God or a person—is ultimately the work of love. “Love is patient,” as Saint Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians.
In linguistic terms, patience is about a willingness to bear adversity or show calm endurance in misfortune. It comes from an old French word, pacience, meaning “sufferance” and “permission.” It is also derived from the Latin patientia (“endurance,” “submission”) and patient (“suffering”).
I witnessed a wonderful example of this quality in a hospital ward recently. During the afternoon, a cart arrived bringing welcome drinks of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate for the patients. The friend I was visiting had to change beds, so I was sitting quietly with little to do except focus, not so much on the cart, but on the remarkable lady who was in charge of it. Not only did she gently ask each person what they would like, but she also spent time with them, finding out how they were and offering words of encouragement at every bed. It was a unique ministry of humble service which was clearly lifting everyone’s spirits.
Unlike the modern trend of fulfilling a contractual requirement in the fastest time and treating people as impersonally as possible, here was someone who took her time and remained unfazed during the cart’s entire shift. Every individual was important and each received reassurance from a hospital worker who was probably the least obtrusive in the building.
As Enzo Biachi reminds us, we also need to be patient with ourselves. “Self-compassion is most important,” my acupuncturist tells me as she gently inserts needles into my flesh. The kinder we are to ourselves, the kinder we will be to other people. The more we learn to accept ourselves and our limitations, the more we will be tolerant of the shortcomings of others. It is this that leads to spiritual maturity, unlike Goethe’s Faust, a magician and astrologer who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly power. After he has renounced hope and faith, he yells, “And cursed above all be patience!” Always in protest against his destiny, Faust is unable to grasp the extent to which all growth and accomplishment are formed by the acceptance, endurance, and perseverance with the way things are.
Indeed, the Roman Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen points out that patience implies the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full, in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself. In this respect, it is closely related to the concept of waiting. Patient living means to live actively in the present—and to wait there. Impatient people expect “the real thing” to happen somewhere else, and, like the television engineer, their trait is to remove themselves from the present situation and head off elsewhere.
But patient people dare to stay where they are, says Nouwen. Yet their waiting is never passive. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, they have the spiritual insight to recognize that, through that patience, they are nurturing the growth of something forming within them.
Dr. Michael Ford lives in England, where for many years he was a broadcaster with BBC Religion and Ethics. An author of spiritual books and a retreat leader, he specializes in the life and ministry of Henri J. Nouwen. He maintains the website Hermitage Within.