"May the Lord direct your hearts
into the love of God and into the patience of Christ."
2 Thessalonians 3:5
|"Christian's Workshop," Giandomenico Jardella|
Lately, my diet of spiritual reading has included some monastic literature on the virtue of patience, a fruit of the Holy Spirit most of us would do well to cultivate more diligently. Scripture, of course, also has plenty to offer on the topic, and I’ve noticed that recent weekday Mass readings have occasionally contained allusions to patience and its close relative, the theological virtue of hope. In today’s readings, for example, St. Paul speaks of hoping for what we do not see, of waiting with endurance amid present sufferings (Romans 8:18-25), while Jesus assures us that the Kingdom of God grows among us slowly and silently—yet steadily and successfully (Luke 13:18-21).
In a monastic context, patience is honed primarily though the experience of living in community. As St. Benedict says in his Rule, monks should support “with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior” (72:5). This is a challenge for each one of us, no matter one’s station in life. Interaction within and among families, workplaces, various assemblies, societies, and nations is the hammer that drives the chisel of patience in (hopefully) smoothing out our rough edges. Of course, one has to be open to such shaping and sculpting, and not resist or—God forbid—retaliate. And so, patience is something we must actively pray for, and nourish regularly with Scripture and the Sacraments.
Patience is a product of the cardinal virtue of fortitude, which assists us with “firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1808). The three grades of patience, according to John A. Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary, are: “to bear difficulties without interior complaint, to use hardships to make progress in virtue, and even to desire the cross and afflictions out of love for God and accept them with spiritual joy.”
Many things, of course, can try our patience, while simultaneously providing the opportunity to fortify or display it. Some can be quite severe, while others are more bothersome than anything else: the vicissitudes of the natural world; illness, physical pain or distress, sorrow and grief; pinpricks of annoyance or irritation that inevitably develop in human relationships (one might also insert here the frustrations that arise from traffic delays, computer failures, and the like); emotional and mental anxiety prompted by insults, scorn, disagreements, misunderstandings, and falsehoods; and the spiritual afflictions associated with genuinely seeking God—temptations, distractions, aridity, etc.
On this last score, it seems to me that those who are serious about the spiritual life can be mercilessly impatient with themselves. My own personal experiences, as well as those related to me by spiritual directees, reinforce the notion that we expect near-immediate proficiency, perception, and perfection—like a toddler attempting to run before first learning to crawl. And while the toddler will eventually gain his feet (one would hope), the fact is that we will never be completely proficient, perceptive, and perfect in the spiritual sense—not in this world, anyway. By extension, if we cannot patiently accept imperfection in ourselves, we will never be able to tolerate it in others or in the world around us.
In this regard, a few words from my patron saint are in order—excerpted from a wonderful letter written to a discouraged young woman more than 400 years ago (but just as relevant today):
These interior troubles you have suffered have been caused by a great multitude of considerations and desires produced by an intense eagerness to attain some imaginary perfection. I mean that your imagination had formed for you an ideal of absolute perfection.
So now, take a little breath and rest a little. … Know that the virtue of patience is the one that most assures us of perfection; and if we must have patience with others, so we must with ourselves. Those who aspire to the pure love of God have not so much need of patience with others as with themselves. We must suffer our imperfection in order to have perfection. I say suffer, not love or pet; humility feeds on this suffering.
I do not mean to say that we are not to put ourselves in that direction [of perfection]; but that we are not to desire to get there in one day. … Sometimes we occupy ourselves so much with being good angels that we neglect being good men and women. Our imperfections must accompany us to our coffin; we cannot walk without touching the earth.If we keep these words of St. Francis de Sales in our minds and hearts, we will be eminently more capable of practicing patience with one another and within the circumstances in which we find ourselves each day. All, of course, after the pattern of Christ. May he bring us all together to everlasting life (Rule 72:11).