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.