The concept of waiting is central to Christianity, but only a few have devoted much thought to it, most notably the French philosopher Simone Weil. In the famous Gospel parable, the servants are judged on whether or not they have waited through the night for the arrival of their Master. It shouldn’t be so very difficult to keep watch when our salvation is at stake. We stay up for much less. No Herculean task is demanded, but simply being ready when the Lord comes. Yet, we often fail to stay awake. Those found asleep when the Master arrives are severely punished and cast out into eternal darkness.
Yet we tend to think of waiting as a painful loss of time, to be avoided if possible. Royalty is therefore never made to wait; King Louis XIV famously complained, “j’ai failli attendre” (I almost waited). But we often have no choice in the matter and have to hold out agonizingly for many things in life: finding a spouse, hoping a family member will get in touch again, being in anguish about a child’s well-being, waiting for another’s character flaws as well as one’s own to be remedied. Many are often tortured by the thought that there is little they can do other than—wait. Since much of our life has to do with waiting, it is important we get it right. In the spiritual life, this is an even greater imperative. Christ says we should knock until the door is opened, importune him like the widow who wakes up the judge in the middle of the night. Persistence is required, especially regarding God, and giving up is tragic, especially when it is justified in the name of good intentions. And we know where a road paved with good intentions leads us.
Yet we often do not know the right way to wait. We chomp at the bit, or worse, give up. With great longing we think ahead to the time when x, y and z will take place. Yet by impatiently thinking ahead of when our life will finally start, we let time slip by. By imagining a blissful future, we avoid making decisions in the here and now, and hence fail to live at all. We wake up one day to the realization that we have wasted our life, because we have paradoxically failed to wait. We must wait in the present, however painful it is.
Waiting is fruitful. It is essential for a good life. It is key to salvation. Since we live in a fallen world where God is a Deus absconditus, we have to make do with the fact that fulfillment is not ours in this life and that God often seems absent. The temptation is great to run away from this bitter truth and create a fictional universe around ourselves, only to face reality when it hits us hard enough. The bourgeois mentality cannot stand the painful longing felt by those who seek God, and wants a complete life instead. It fails to recognize that only a life that embraces imperfections as crosses that have to be born (when they cannot be changed), is a life worth living. Instead of allowing man to live in the present with an eye toward the beyond, the bourgeois worldview closes off the beyond in order to establish heaven on earth. It refuses to wait for the good things; it will not sell everything in order to buy pearl of great price. Instead, it prefers to build a hut on a barren desert, pretending it is a castle in a lush forest. It has traded its birthright for a mess of pottage.
Waiting Applied to the Divorced and Remarried
These reflections on waiting have practical application for all those who live in a state of serious sin, most notably divorced and remarried couples. We can apply this concept of waiting to their situation and offer pastoral care to them without passing judgment on individuals. Similar to the bourgeois mentality, the person living in sin has decided to build her own temporal paradise. She has put her own happiness or that of other people ahead of the teachings of Christ; seeking the happiness of others might seem noble, but it is due, at the very least, to a misapprehension about what constitutes the ultimate good of another. To resist the temptation to remarry or cohabitate would mean living with the pain of solitude, and of renouncing the promise of happiness with someone other than our spouse. It would mean embracing the dark night of suffering into which this situation can throw us, waiting for the light of dawn to break.
All great suffering throws us into darkness, often conveying the wrong impression that God has abandoned us. Christ experienced this abandonment himself, so we know that it comes with intense anguish. Had Christ taken the easy route, he would have gotten off the cross as the jeerers suggested, shaken the dust off his feet and left us to our misery. We know how strongly he rebuked Peter when the latter suggested Jesus need not suffer: “Get behind me, Satan.” Christ had to drink the bitter cup to the end in order to experience the resurrection, as did the women under the cross and so do we. Mary is the perfect image of those waiting, holding out with her son as the unthinkable is happening, as God himself is being crucified. She could have revolted in what seemed nonsensical and gratuitous suffering, asked him to use his power to put a stop to it, but she didn’t.
She is therefore the model and succor for those in a state of grave sin and those accompanying them. It would be a false mercy indeed to tell the divorced and remarried that their situation is not serious. It would be the same lie as that tendered by the bourgeois worldview (the solution offered by Cardinal Kasper et al., by the way, expresses a very bourgeois mentality). It would be like telling the prodigal son that the husks he ate were nourishing and good, making him thereby forget the remaining memories of his father’s house and sever him from the last hope of return.
The father, as we know, looks out for the prodigal son, sees him coming from a distance and slaughters the fatted calf. Had the prodigal son’s brother cared for him, he might have done the same, perhaps meeting him half way, assuring him of his and his father’s warm welcome. The Holy Father speaks much of the necessity of accompanying those living in grave sin (see number 46 & 51 of the Synod’s final version of its Relatio document). This entails giving them much more than merely sound doctrine (which should not remain unspoken merely because it is inconvenient), but waiting for them and showing them that we have not given up hope on them, though they may have. By our charity and example, we can remind them that their Heavenly Father is waiting, that he has not forgotten them and that his mercy is infinite (as Pope Francis keeps saying, we should not proselytize, but be a witness). This is a painful journey for both, especially to figure out humanly speaking how to extricate oneself from these tight-knit bonds of a second union. But only if the journey is begun, can it eventually reach its final destination. If we tell them they may happily settle into their sin, then we are ringing a spiritual death knell for them.
Only when Christ’s love becomes sufficiently palpable to them will they find the strength to sever these ties. But this takes patience. The word patience comes from the Latin word “pati” meaning “to suffer.” This means staying with them while the painful leaven of divine mercy works its way through their hearts. It means sharing in their suffering without which this journey cannot be undertaken. For waiting implies suffering. It is the water necessary for the sapling of love to grow. To wait means making oneself vulnerable, but it is the only way that love can grow. One either waits for the other to grow on his own terms or one nips all change in the bud.
Waiting for God is not like waiting for Godot in Beckett’s famous play. The absurd worldview claiming it is hopeless to wait for a non-existent god fails to recognize that God has been waiting for us all along; that he is like a beggar knocking at our door, asking to be let in. It overlooks the unfathomable humility of God who, as C. S. Lewis put it about his own conversion, is willing to take back a prodigal son who is dragging his feet.
What seems to us like waiting is in reality our first response to infinite Love who has waited for and on us for a long time. If it seems like we are suspended in utter darkness with no sign of dawn, then this is because we first need to learn the language of love, which speaks too softly for us to hear at first. Only if we have waited long enough will we recognize its voice, and understand that we are no longer servants, but friends and brothers of Christ. We will realize then that we have not waited in vain.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Wise Virgins” was painted by James Tissot between 1886 and 1894.