The readings from Mass yesterday (Wednesday of the 6th Week of the Year) give two helpful images that call us to patience. Patience is a virtue through which we are willing to endure as we look for something better that will come to pass. The word comes from the Latin patior, which means “to suffer.” Thus the virtue of patience is the capacity or willingness to suffer some difficulty for a greater good rather than for immediate satisfaction. For example, we might be annoyed at someone’s behavior and want to vent our anger immediately, but patience (and prudence) might counsel that we should wait for a better moment to discuss the matter. We are willing to suffer now for a potentially better outcome later.
We also need to learn patience in the areas of moral and spiritual growth, both for ourselves and others. Growth usually comes slowly and in stages. The term “stages” suggests that certain things need to be firmly in place before other things can happen. Jesus once said, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (Jn 16:12-13). In this we see the patience of God as He accustoms us to His wisdom and truth. We read elsewhere, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:15). His patience for us is no mere coddling; it is meant to be ongoing, steady work as we grow in maturity and greater conformity to the truth.
This leads to the two images of patience in Wednesday’s readings. One occurs in the Gospel; in it, Jesus heals a blind man.
[Jesus] laid his hands on the man and asked, “Do you see anything?” Looking up the man replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” Then he laid hands on the man’s eyes a second time and he saw clearly; his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly (Mk 8:23-25).
It’s hard not to laugh a bit at this. Even Jesus had to lay hands on some folks more than once! We are more accustomed to seeing His miracles as instant fixes, and this is dangerous. What the miracles mean to teach is that the event described in the passage is what happens to us (if we are faithful), but extended over a longer period of time. Most of us see more clearly over time, rather than all at once. The Lord removes our blindness in stages and through ongoing healing. The miracle described here illustrates that well. Jesus works patiently with the blind man, and he works even more patiently with us.
We, too, must learn to work with others over time to restore lost vision. Sometimes in order to grasp higher truths, other supporting truths and first principles must first be understood. When a person has been in a dark room, it is usually inadvisable to turn on all the lights at once; rather, it is better to accustom him to the light gradually. Thus, patience and prudence counsel persistently working, with ourselves and others, so that progress can be made.
A second picture of patience is seen in the first reading from the Book of Genesis. Noah is “working” with a dove to assess the stages of the flood:
[Noah] sent out a dove,
to see if the waters had lessened on the earth.
But the dove could find no place to alight and perch,
and it returned to him in the ark,
for there was water all over the earth.
Putting out his hand, he caught the dove
and drew it back to him inside the ark.
He waited seven days more and again sent the dove out from the ark.
In the evening the dove came back to him,
and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf!
So Noah knew that the waters had lessened on the earth.
He waited still another seven days
and then released the dove once more;
and this time it did not come back (Gen 8:8-13).
Allow the dove to symbolize our growth and maturity, for we live in a world that is often flooded with trouble.
- In the first stage, the dove flutters about and is so terrified by what it sees that Noah must reach out and rescue it by pulling it back into the ark.
- In the second stage, the dove finds a sign of hope, serenity, and peace. It is able to return showing this sign of progress and peace.
- In the final stage, the dove flies free!
This is a picture of growth and maturity for us, who in stages become free of our fears and from excessive dependence on others; eventually we fly free. As Noah patiently worked with the dove, so God patiently works with us. This is also how we should work with our own self and others.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I was afflicted with grave anxiety and was being treated for it. In a difficult and discouraging moment, I angrily said to God, “If you wanted to, you could just fix this for me in an instant!” God replied, “I will not do violence to you.” I quickly responded, “I didn’t ask you to do violence to me.” God retorted, “Yes, you did.”
Indeed, healing takes time. For example, heart surgery is a delicate work and not to be rushed. Many people want relief, not healing. Healing involves hard work; it means making important changes in our life. It usually means looking honestly at our wounds and then doing the spiritual and psychological equivalent of “physical therapy.”
This leads us back to where we began: We need to learn greater patience. But patience is not passive; it is not resignation to sin or other harmful drives. Patience involves suffering; it is a resolve to stay in an often-difficult relationship with what (or who) troubles us so as to lay hold of the greater goal of holiness and healing. Patience is not looking for a quick fix or mere relief; it is looking for healing. Healing is hard, but it is better—far better—than mere relief.