Patience, Hard Thing!


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December 15  

“Hold on, Mama’s coming! Be patient!” How many times a day do I say that? Five? Ten? Perhaps fifty? With young children, their needs—both real and perceived—are frequent and always, always urgent. There is no future time; there is only now. The baby wants to be held now; the toddler wants her milk cup now; the kindergartner wants her super-hero cape tied now. Often, as I tend to their needs, I recall the opening words of a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Patience, hard thing!” And it is hard, indeed, for little ones whose brains have only rudimentary conceptions of time. But as often as I insist they be patient with me, I am hardly any better at waiting than they are. Given today’s readings, it seems I’m not alone in my impatience, for James, like a loving mother, implores each of us multiple times in the span of a few sentences to be patient:

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You, too, must be patient. Make your hearts firm because the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not complain, brothers, about one another, that you may not be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates. Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord (Js 5:7-10).

James doesn’t say, Peace be with you. He says, Be patient until the coming of the Lord and encourages us to look for “examples of hardship.” Indeed, what exactly are we asking for when we ask God for patience? I like to think that I’m asking for the waiting to be made easier somehow, to be distracted, to care less, not to feel the deprivation as keenly. But that’s not what patience is, nor is it the peace of God’s presence.

In his poem, Hopkins gets to the heart of why patience is so hard. He says that one who asks for patience wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks; / To do without, take tosses, and obey. Patience is a weariness, a wound, an inner war. It’s the time before the peace. A later line of the Hopkins’ poem begins, We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills / To bruise them dearer. What an apt image! When my child asks how many more days until Christmas, it seems I can hear the grating of her heart. I certainly can feel mine when I am waiting for the Lord to come. I want to see the fruits of my labor, of my suffering, now. But James encourages us to wait, for the rains must come first, and our hearts must be firm despite the bruising.

Hopkins’ resolution to this problem of patience, and one I cling to as well, is to recall that God himself is patient: And where is he who more and more distills / Delicious kindness?—He is patient. He, too, is the patient farmer waiting for his seeds to bear fruit in us. He is the one who suffers for us. He came to us as a baby, inserting himself in history, and submitting himself to the constraints of time. And he is coming. Until that time, listen to the words of James, the words of Isaiah, the words of the Psalmist, today. Take heart, and be encouraged.

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