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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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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