Having come back from a two-week trek through Europe, I return this week to the subject of the virtues — this time, it’s Patience. Regular readers of mine might complain that here I’m preaching to the choir: Surely they of all people have mastered this virtue, if only by working their way through my labyrinthine digressions, historical vignettes, and autobiographical dog anecdotes. And of course, I’m happy to help.
But there’s much more to the virtue of patience than the eye-rolling, fingertapping resistance to abandoning an experience (closing a book, walking out of a movie, dumping your two-year-old in foster care) in the hope that the “good parts” will turn up pretty soon. By itself, that’s not so much a virtue as a life-skill we all pick up along the way — unless we plan to live in an isolated Quonset hut surrounded by razor wire. Which is always an option.
We could call the basic, post-adolescent ability to delay gratification, and see things through to the end, simple “forebearance.” As in, “My friend made me watch the Borat movie, and I put up with it for the bear.” And indeed, the scene where Oksana, Borat’s bear, leans out of the back of the ice cream truck Borat is driving past a park and scatters a flock of school kids is one of the funniest things ever filmed. But it doesn’t make the movie an edifying experience, so waiting around for it doesn’t rank as a practice of virtuous Patience. (How’s that for a digression? Now pat yourself on the back.)
Patience as a Christian virtue involves doing rather more than the old “wince and wait” we learn counting the long, long seconds it takes traffic lights to change, or other people’s lips to finish moving so we can speak. There’s much more to it than simply realizing that life is in fact not TiVo, and you can’t fast forward through the laxative commercials. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Preachers have classically called us to look — instead of to Borat or laxatives — to Christ. Specifically, to His monumental patience during His passion, when the creator of the universe, Who really did have absolute command over “legions of angels,” endured long hours of mockery, spitting, betrayal, abandonment, torture, and finally execution at the hands of His wretched creations. On a purely human level, this is completely incomprehensible, like an old lady calmly allowing herself to be slowly eaten by her Persian cats — all the while explaining, “But it does the poor dears good.”
But then, on a purely human level, life itself is a nasty practical joke, a trick played on us by selfish DNA that uses our frail, dying frames to replicate itself indefinitely like some interminable Hollywood franchise entailing Nicholas Cage, until the sun sputters out, the planets stop moving, and the galaxies dissipate into a tepid, homogenous gruel like Merrimack, New Hampshire — a town with neither sidewalks nor a center, only strip malls connected by highways. Or so the physicists say.
Perhaps the image of Christ enduring His passion is at once too emotional and too mysterious to invoke for everyday use. For instance, when I got in my cramped Lufthansa coach seat after a meal entailing asparagus and far too much drawn butter, and realized I’d be spending the next seven hours climbing in and out of the coffin-like airplane bathroom, it really didn’t seem the time to tell myself: “Oh yeah? Well think of what Jesus endured.” My snarky self would have answered, “The Bible said ‘blows and spitting.'”
At times like those, when pathos foxtrots with bathos, it’s much more helpful to think of the lesser trials Jesus suffered throughout His life. For instance, all that time He had to spend shuffling through crowds of cantankerous Middle-Easterners, asking Him leading questions, questioning His authority, and showing Him their pustulent, suppurating wounds. Keep in mind that He could also read their souls, which for Him (as for priests like Padre Pio) must have been as grueling and dispiriting as a trip through an “all-ages” nudist camp.
I’m sure our Lord felt at once like a weary eighth-grade religion teacher, an overworked law associate, and a medical intern working triple shifts at Bellevue. Surely there must have been times, long before the passion, when Our Lord was tempted to reach out a hand, press Control-Alt-Delete, and uncreate the universe. But He didn’t — and most of the time, we’re grateful for that. Except just after we’ve eaten that damned asparagus . . .
Our Lord was able to put up with ordinary life as the Messiah, and His atrociously cruel death, only because He knew of its redemptive purpose. We can suffer with many indignities if our eyes stay on the prize; He made us that way. This holds true at every stage of life, from the mastery of difficult but necessary skills — such as making roux for gumbo or writing formal verse — right up through the bouts of colic, homework assignments, school talent shows, staff meetings, performance reviews, marital squabbles, teenage tantrums, and occasional genuine tragedies that fill up most people’s earthly lives. Even gleefully atheist scientists admit that religious faith serves a purpose — keeping us going, day to day, by giving us a sense of purpose.
As Christians, we know that our Purpose also had senses. Five of them. He slogged through most of the same quagmires we do. He shambled through squalidly crowded city streets in search of decent falafel, put up with tedious questions from learned idiots about the minutiae of legal disputes. (Did He ever change diapers? With all those cousins, I bet He did.) And amidst it all, He made wine, cured the sick, multiplied loaves and fishes, and saved the world. He may not have always suffered with a smile — but then, that would have been creepy. The Patience of Christ was fully human, which meant that it had limits. For instance, He had zero time for liturgical innovations . . .
But I digress.