Why Patience Is So Hard

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Patience is often called the Benedictine’s fourth vow. ‘We share by patience in the sufferings of Christ,’ says St Benedict in the prologue to his Rule. What he didn’t say was how difficult that can be. Saints aren’t made as easily as instant coffee. Indeed the process of sanctification seems to consist of much scouring and scooping out, lots of good intentions that end in failure, and the apparently endless plodding on. But is that what makes it hard? I don’t think so. Patience is hard because it is, as the word implies, suffering. It is not stoicism or endurance, a way of coping with pain, it is being exposed to pain itself— and we naturally shrink from that. The pain we can talk about or share with others is probably not the pain we feel most acutely. It is the things that keep us awake in the small hours or send a cold chill down our spine that often inflict the most searing pain, and our not being able to share them makes the suffering worse. Is it pointless? Again, I don’t think so.

As we move closer to Holy Week we focus more and more on Christ’s inner life. Now and then we get glimpses of what fidelity to the Father cost: the misunderstanding of those he held most dear, their abandonment of him in his loneliest hour, the physical torment of his passion and death. Was he afraid that he might not be strong enough to bear it all? Did he fear ultimate failure? We don’t know. We don’t know what patience meant for him, but we do know this. Whatever we are called upon to bear, we bear it in union with him; and because we bear it in union with him, it is not pointless. Christ did not fail, and provided we hold fast to him, we shall not fail, either. Patience may not be easy, but it is our way into that saving dynamic, to the joy of Easter and eternal blessedness.

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Rich and Poor and Purity of Heart

As we draw closer to the General Election, politicians of every stripe are anxious to be seen as good guys. Unfortunately, that often seems to mean bandying around claims and counter-claims about poverty and wealth which foster division and envy. We do not have to hate the rich in order to be concerned about the poor. We do not have to despise the poor in order to desire a prosperous society. Dives and Lazarus in today’s gospel (Luke 16.19–31) are not to be interpreted in black and white terms. Wealth is not condemned nor is poverty commended as such. Dives is in agony because during his life on earth he failed to be charitable, not because he was rich. Lazarus enjoys bliss because he was patient in adversity and never railed against God, not because he was poor.

Very often at the monastery we are invited to support some good cause or other, and we have learned to be wary. Sometimes the cause isn’t good; sometimes it is presented in a way that makes us uneasy. It is possible to do an ostensibly good deed in a way that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Bitterness, envy, hatred, jealousy — these are not Christian values but they can be the wellspring of our actions. St Benedict borrows a verse of the psalmist to remind us to be on our guard about our own motives: ‘my every desire is before you,’ he says, and that includes those we prefer not to acknowledge. It would be a useful Lenten exercise to spend a few minutes thinking prayerfully about the things that matter to us and, without becoming tied up in knots about it, scrutinising our own intentions. A pure heart is only attained through constant watchfulness.

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When Things Go Wrong

Who hasn’t had the experience of everything seeming to go wrong, and usually all at once? The last few days have been rather like that for me. I won’t bore you with the details because I’m sure you can think of  enough instances in your own life without my having to recount any of my own. The problem is, what do we do? We can kick and scream, if we are the kicking and screaming type; we can renew our attempts to improve things, though with the gloomy foreboding that we’ll only make things worse; we can pray; we can try to escape whatever it is that oppresses us by plunging into drink or drugs or some other means of oblivion (not available to nuns, please note); we can have a good cry; take a hot bath; go for a walk; talk to the dog. What we can’t do is what we most want to do: change the circumstances we find ourselves in.

For me as a Benedictine, that is where patience comes in. It is often said that patience is our fourth vow because Benedict explicitly says that ‘we share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve to share also in his kingdom’. (RB Prologue 50.)  As a society we aren’t very keen on suffering; and if we are honest, some of the supposedly character-forming suffering of the past was both unnecessary and unhelpful. But it is surely naive to expect a world — or a life — from which suffering is absent. The ability to feel pain, to register sorrow and distress, to share comfort with another: these are human qualities that make us transcend our ordinary limitations. You may argue that problems with the plumbing, say, may be exasperating and inflict various degrees of inconvenience but they do not make us transcend anything. To which I would reply that I think they can.

It is not the thing itself but the feelings and responses it arouses within us that counts. A problem with the plumbing may seem hilarious at one level, but it may make me angry and aggressive and mean that I can’t wash or cook or have the heating on and am therefore cold, dirty and dispirited (this, I hasten to add, is for the purposes of illustration only and does not reflect life at Howton Grove Priory at the time of writing). The ability to cope with that cheerfully and not give way to envy or irritability is a form of transcendence, and not to be sneered at because it is a small thing. Life is made up of small things, small graces. When things go wrong, it is the small graces we most need and which bring us closer to Christ.

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Patience for Beginners

The prologue to the Rule of St Benedict ends with a poetic hymn to monastic life and the role of patience within it. But it’s not patience as we commonly understand it: a plodding, unambitious quality which resigns us to accept what we cannot change. It is much more dynamic than that. We ‘share by patience in the sufferings of Christ,’ says St Benedict (Prol. 50). Patience, too, is capable of great and glorious deeds, but they are performed in a different key, have a different end in view, from those we usually associate with courage and derring-do. The patience that opens us up to the action of God in our lives, which transforms us in Christ, goes way beyond resignation. It is a joyful, willed embrace of everything our lives contain, a participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ himself. Patience of this kind never gives up or seeks ways of escape, however tired or weary we may be. It is like Walter Hilton’s Pilgrim, whose answer to every check or contradiction is, ‘I will be at Jerusalem.’

If, just for today, we could each live with patience of that kind, just think how different our lives would be!

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Overdoing Things

Lots of people are prone to overdoing things, but those in the so-called caring professions are probably more prone than many. For clergy and religious overdoing things seems to be a given. People have very high expectations of us and in an attempt to meet those expectations, we can sometimes exhaust ourselves and those closest to us. Often we feel we have no choice. We know we should rest, but someone comes along and asks us to do something and we feel obliged to respond. It does not help when a well-wisher says, ‘Vicar, you should rest,’ or ‘Father, take things easy for a bit.’ Experience shows that if the tired vicar or parish priest does take a rest, there are very soon some disgruntled comments being made about selfishness and other undesirable qualities.

I was pondering this mini-problem when I came across an interesting blog post entitled 15 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy. Although apparently written from a secular/New Age standpoint, it has some reminders about the need for forgiveness, humility and so on with which no Christian would disagree. At the end comes a reminder about freeing ourselves from the expectations others have of us. That was the point where I realised how different the Christian perspective is. We do not seek to be ‘in control’ but to surrender to whatever the Lord is asking of us in any and every situation. Our problem is that when we overdo things, we are doing the wrong thing for the right reason, which is why it is so hard to break ourselves of the habit.

It could be a useful exercise to scrutinize one’s own motivation, particularly if one knows one has a tendency to overdo things. I cheerfully admit to trying to do too much and getting cross with myself whenever I fail (which is often) or feeling a bit crushed when others get cross with me for not doing what they have asked or expect of me. I don’t think there is any ‘solution’ this side of heaven except practising humility and patience. Perhaps it is because they are such quintessentially Benedictine qualities that I am still struggling!

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A Different Way of Acting

Yesterday’s post looked at some aspects of the cellarer’s duties and the personal qualities needed to perform them well. The second half of RB 31 goes into greater detail about how the cellarer should behave in various demanding situations.

Benedict has already reminded us that everyone and everything is, potentially at least, holy — imprinted with the divine image and to be treated with the utmost respect. Now he says that the cellarer should ‘above all’ possess humility and answer kindly if he is unable to meet a request (RB 31.13, 14). There is real psychological insight here. When someone is responsible for the welfare of others, not being able to provide what is necessary can be hard to bear. A crotchety manner, a rough answer, apparent indifference, they are all ways of masking the inadequacy and failure that the person feels. Benedict will have none of it. The cellarer must have an interior freedom about his service which will enable him to answer mildly and with patience. Moreover, just because he has the power of giving or withholding goods, the cellarer mustn’t think he can behave in a superior manner, as though he were conferring a benefit on others. There must be no arrogance or delay in giving the brethren their food, for example (RB 31. 16).

Benedict is aware, however, that the cellarer himself must be treated with consideration or nothing will get done as it should. The proper times for asking for things must be adhered to, and there should be assistants if the community is comparatively large (RB 31.17, 18). What Benedict aims at is, above all, peace and harmony in community.

I have myself been cellarer in a large and comparatively rich community as well as in a smaller and poorer one. I’m not sure which presents the bigger challenge. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictine life. Monks and nuns in richer houses become too comfortable, forgetting the fervour and zeal with which they began. What was once enough becomes in time not quite sufficient, so that yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity. In poorer houses, the need to economize and make do becomes in time a kind of institutionalized miserliness. It is not too much to say that the cellarer bears a great responsibility for steering a middle course, ensuring that legitimate needs are met but no luxury or excess creeps in, not even in inverted form.

There is only one way of ensuring that the cellarer is equal to his responsibilities: fidelity to prayer and constant watchfulness over his own behaviour. To some, what Benedict has to say may sound naive. All right for monks and nuns, perhaps, but not for people in the ‘real world’. It depends what you think is real, I suppose. Benedict’s recommended way of acting is different from that of some of our corporate mega-stars, but I have a hunch that it makes for greater happiness in this world and the next. It certainly makes for greater fairness. What do you think?

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School of the Lord’s Service

We reach the end of the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule today (RB Prol. 45 to 50: you can listen to the daily portion of RB read in English on our main web site, here). The words are so familiar they sometimes lose their edge, yet this dominici scola servitii is constantly presenting us with new challenges because its favourite teaching methods are suffering and patience. No one ‘likes’ suffering; no one ‘likes’ being patient; but if we are to lay ourselves open to the mystery of God, there is no alternative.

Suffering can make us bitter and self-absorbed. Benedict, however, is much more sanguine about human nature. He expects that  instead of our closing in on ourselves, we shall open out, become big-hearted (quite literally — dilatato corde) and ‘run on the way of God’s commandments with a sweetness of love beyond all telling’ (inennarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei). However familiar the words may become, the lesson must always be learned anew, for our hope is not for this world only. We have our hearts set on Christ and his Kingdom.

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Patience

Patience is often described as the Benedictine’s fourth vow. It is a theme that occurs again and again in the Rule, where we are reminded that we ‘share by patience in the sufferings of Christ’. (RB Prol. 50) The newcomer to monastic life is to be ‘tested in all patience’.  (RB 58.11) Indeed, patiently bearing with delays and contradictions is one of the signs looked for as the mark of a genuine vocation. It all sounds rather wonderful until one has to practise it. For the plain truth is that patience is hard work. It means embracing suffering, not just stoically putting up with it, and doing so with a quiet heart. (RB 7. 35) Patience requires a great deal of trust and humility as well as self-control.

Patience, trust, humility: these are not qualities that our society cultivates or values very much. We prefer to be self-assertive, thrusting not trusting, testing everything by our own standards and rather despising those who are patient and humble, as thought they were milksops. In fact, it takes real strength of character to be patient, to accept adversity quietly, without anger or upset. Similarly, trust and humility are not for wimps but for those who are brave enough to look themselves in the face and know themselves for what they are.

Today each one of us will be given the opportunity to exercise a little patience, to show a little trust and be a little humble. Are we big enough to meet the challenge?

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In Praise of the Salesians

There is much to say about my recent trip to the U.S.A. but there is a lot of catching up to do first, so this will be no more than a brief ‘I’m back’ kind of post.

For the New York part of my stay I enjoyed the hospitality of the Salesian Sisters at Haledon, New Jersey. They couldn’t have been kinder or more generous (though I did wonder briefly whether the large mug and copious quantities of tea bags on 4 July had some Deeper Significance). There were lots of good things I noticed about the Sisters but one struck me very forcibly. I never once heard any of them grumble about any of the other Sisters or speak testily to them. It may be that they already are saints; they certainly are living as saints. Community life isn’t always easy, as anyone who has tried it will tell you. Being thrown together with a group of people one hasn’t chosen and to whom one is not related by blood, each of whom is blessed with idiosyncracies and foibles one doesn’t necessarily share, can be taxing. All credit, then, to the Salesians for being so considerate of one another, not just the guests. St Benedict would have approved.

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