Patience: “When God ripens apples he isn’t in a hurry and doesn’t make a noise”
What kind of things do you find most frustrating? It’s a rather worrying fact of life that it’s relatively easy to reconcile ourselves to some of the worst things in our world – like war, poverty, and hunger – while we easily become frustrated over the most trivial of things. One of the most infuriating is the “dilemma of the choice of the right lane”. At the supermarket checkout, you have to make a decision as to which lane to stand in. I believe there is a basic scientific law which says that the neighbouring lanes will always move faster than the one which you are in. And once you’ve put your shopping on the conveyor you are committed, trapped. It’s the same in motorway traffic jams. There’s always a lane which seems to be moving faster than the one you are in. If you do decide to be antisocial and change lanes, punishment is usually abrupt and brutal as the lane you’ve just moved to grinds to a standstill. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have recited to myself, in such circumstances, Kipling’s most commendable but unachievable words, “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting …”
Patience has traditionally been a Christian virtue. However, it is becoming less and less fashionable these days. There are so many subtle and not so subtle pressures to get things as soon as we want them; to buy now, pay later; to consume and not to save – or, as the slogan of a famous fast food restaurant puts it, ‘You want it, you got it.’
Let’s look more closely at the meaning and origins of the word ‘patience’. I wonder if you know where it comes from. It comes, in fact, from the Latin ‘pateo’. This word is rather unusual, in that it describes the idea of ‘having something done to you’. It came to refer in particular to suffering – on the basis that suffering meant that something bad was being done to you. ‘He suffered’ is ‘passus est’ – which gives us the word ‘Passion’. ‘The Passion of Christ’ is nothing to do with emotion – but refers to his suffering on the cross. Indeed the word ‘passion’, used in this sense, is closer to the original Latin in its meaning than the more modern meaning which we normally give it today. But even its more modern meaning is to do with the effects our emotions have on us – such as making us excited, amorous, or overwhelmed.
The words ‘patient’ and ‘patience’ are also derived from the same Latin stem, pateo, passus. These are also to do with ‘having something done to you’. A patient is suffering something undesirable; someone who is patient is enduring without complaining something which he or she doesn’t particularly like. So ironically, we find that two words which seem like opposites, ‘passion’ and ‘patience’, come in fact from the same stem.
This is all very interesting, you may well say, but it doesn’t help us to be more patient. I don’t think I’m a particularly good person to preach to others about being patient. In fact preaching worthy words about the need to be more patient is unlikely to have much effect on anyone. But let’s see if we can understand a little more about patience by listening to some wise words spoken by others.
Thomas a Kempis (the author of the Cloud of Unknowing) : “He is not truly patient who will endure only as much as he pleases and from whom he pleases. A truly patient person bears all”.
Pope Gregory the Great: “True patience is to suffer the wrongs done to us by others in an unruffled spirit and without feeling resentment. Patience bears with others because it loves them; to bear with them and yet to hate them is not patience, but a smokescreen for anger”.
John Christian Morgenstern: “Consider the hour glass: there is nothing to be accomplished by rattling or shaking; you have to wait patiently until the sand, grain by grain, has run from one funnel into the other”.
Similarly: “When God ripens apples, he isn’t in a hurry and doesn’t make a noise” (D. Jackman).
We’re beginning to see certain themes emerge as we think about patience – what it involves, why it is so difficult a virtue. It is to do with bearing and enduring things which are not what we would wish. It includes not resenting wrongs done to us; and more than that, giving back love and goodness when all one receives seems to be hostility. And it means coping with suffering or distress bravely and determinedly. But it also involves accepting situations as they are when they cannot be changed; recognising that sometimes God’s ways are not our ways, to quote the prophet Isaiah – and that sometimes God’s timescale is not our timescale.
Today’s readings give us some more insights into patience. The first one puts almost any kind of suffering into perspective; the city of Jerusalem had been sacked by the armies of Babylon in 587, and its people taken into exile. It was fifty years before they were allowed to go free and begin rebuilding their ancestral home. The second is the great description of love by St. Paul. You may have noticed that one of the first – and most important – qualities which make up love is patience. You wouldn’t think that patience plays much of a part in love these days, going by how ‘love’(so-called) is often portrayed in the newspapers; but St. Paul reminds us here that patience lies at the heart of love. All long-term love evolves; situations and people change; you sometimes need to work hard and patiently to make the love that you feel for someone show forth in the relationship. And thirdly – one of the great New Testament examples of patience. Simeon and Anna were so convinced that God would raise up a Messiah that they waited several decades for their hopes to be fulfilled. Anna was eighty-four years of age, having been a widow since seven years after her marriage – perhaps a total of over sixty years, since women usually got married in their early teens. She now waited patiently in the Temple, worshipping night and day, fasting and praying, looking out for the Messiah.
I have tried today to remind us all that patience is a key element of the Christian life. Patience with situations; patience with people. Enduring without resenting; accepting those things that can’t be changed, trying to see where God’s ways and God’s time are different from our ways and our time. Thinking long-term, if necessary; refusing to bow to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; but also to pray, to hope, to keep faith in God. For after all, God himself is our model of patience – the God who remained patient with his people through the long years of Israel’s history as described in the Old Testament, even though they often rebelled against him; and who has been patiently inviting people to turn to him ever since Christ came to earth and was rejected and despised by many who knew him.
I was thinking of this last night as I was attempting to catch a horse as the light was fading and the wind and rain becoming rapidly stronger. This was Isobel’s pony, who had to be taken to his evening’s supply of hay, but, perversely, did not want to come. Every time I tried to get near him he ran off. I became more and more frustrated as Cracker refused to stay still for the halter. But I also knew that I just had to wait; to let him calm down, that if I got angry or impatient that would just make matters worse. It made me think how patient God must be, and long-suffering, when we humans keep running away from him. He keeps waiting for us, and will never give up doing so, because he wants us back – and wants to lead us in his paths. His patience, unlike ours, is infinite. Our task is to allow His patience to be the source and wellspring of our own.