You may have heard this short prayer: “Lord, give me patience, but please hurry!” What is patience? It is a virtue which helps us, for the love of God, to calmly bear our tribulations and preserve serenity amid the sufferings of life. Patience tempers sorrow and staves off excessive anger and complaining. Patience is the guardian of all the virtues, for there are obstacles to be encountered in any good work, and they can be overcome only by patience.
Spiritual writers are not the only ones who attest to the importance of patience. An Englishman once asked William Pitt what quality was most essential for a Prime Minister. One person had said, “eloquence,” another “knowledge,” and yet another “hard work.” “No,” said Pitt, “it is patience or self-control” (In Pursuit of Perfection, Charles Hugo Doyle, p. 133).
Patience and self-control are never more sorely tested than in our daily sufferings. Suffering is common to all, but it is meritorious only if accepted with the proper dispositions. Fr. Balthazar Alvarez enumerates the five causes of suffering which try our patience:
1) Assault of the weather: extreme cold, excessive heat, violent storms, drought, high humidity, floods, earthquakes, etc. Such trials very often strengthen faith by recalling to mind the sovereign dominion of God.
2) The necessities of our weak human nature, such as fatigue, sickness, hunger, thirst, etc. God allows these so that we may do penance for our sins and increase our virtues. The ultimate of these sufferings is the sorrow caused by the death of a loved one — a grief which may last a lifetime.
3) Pain, irritation and frustration due to personality conflicts with others. God makes use of the weakness of others to test and strengthen our virtues.
4) Insults, contempt, opposition, false accusations and misunderstanding, which often cause mental anguish.
5) Spiritual sufferings that one encounters in the service of God, such as spiritual dryness, scruples, distractions, temptations and persecutions from the devil.
In all these cases, a wise person bravely accepts and carries his cross because it leads to eternal salvation. Not only that, it can even beget supernatural happiness in this life: “Esteem it all joy, my brethren, when you fall into various trials, knowing that the trying of your faith begets patience.”2 The saints knew how to suffer with patience. They bravely and joyfully carried their crosses because they realized that the cross is God’s greatest gift. The saints knew that patience in tribulation is the main road to salvation.
God did not choose an angel to mediate between sinners and Himself. Rather, the Father sent the Son to suffer and die to redeem mankind. Unlike an angel, who could have compassion but not empathy for our condition, Jesus Christ assumed our human nature to share our wounds and sorrows. Never again could it be said that God does not know what suffering is like from personal experience. St. Jane Frances de Chantal explains how this empathic example of Our Lord can inspire us. Speaking of those who have offended us, she writes: “With whom did Jesus converse? With a traitor who sold Him at a cheap rate, with a thief who reviled Him in His last moments, with sinners and proud pharisees. And shall we, at every shadow of an affront or contradiction, show how little charity and patience we have?”
At times we take the easy way out and give up. It is in times like these that we need a “wake-up call.” When a sheep strays from the fold, the shepherd sends his dog after it, not to devour it, but to bring it back again. So our Heavenly Father, if any of His sheep stray away, setting out on the wrong path, sets His dogs of affliction to bring us home to a consideration of our duty towards Him. His dogs are poverty, sickness, death, war, and loss of material goods or friends.
Patience is exercised when we resign our will to the will of God and accept our crosses as coming from the hand of God for our welfare. Our individual burdens, whatever they may be, are God’s gift and have divine blessings for us, if we bear them in faith and love. When we call upon God for help, He will likely not take the load from our shoulders, but rather strengthen us to carry the burden. Patience does not necessarily exclude wishing for relief from suffering, but it does exclude murmuring about it. We need to pray and to exercise patience and courage in order to bear it.
It is easy to think that our troubles are greater than those of others. Yet a walk through the nearest hospital will soon dispel that illusion. Unless we are very self-centered and spiritually blind, we will leave the hospital counting our blessings and thanking God. Indeed, none of us has a monopoly on trouble. There is plenty to go around. There always has been.
The worldly view of suffering is misleading and dangerous; it is both irrational and irreligious. The world gives to suffering the consideration that really ought to be given to sin, regarding it as the supreme evil to be combatted at any cost, as the great enemy of mankind, and as something in which there is no particle of good or any mitigating circumstances. This view leads to strenuous efforts to abolish suffering, thereby making people less capable of enduring it and often causing their efforts to be wasted and misdirected.
The world values and seeks comfort, pleasure and status. What place have pain and poverty in such a scheme of life as this? What need is there, for the world’s purposes, of virtues such as patience, resignation, meekness, contentment, faith? It does not want to know about suffering or to make provision for it.
True patience is a difficult virtue to practice because of our selfishness and fear of the cross. It is difficult to preserve peace of soul in times of sickness, misfortune and stress. The pressure of many and onerous duties in our state of life often causes us to be impatient along with the fatigue of the battle.
The continued practice of patience will bring about a greater love for Christ and for our neighbor. We become more tolerant of others’ faults, more forgiving, and more ready to help others. This behavior will be supernaturally meritorious, of course, only in so far as we are united to Christ and draw our strength from Him. We must do our good actions for His honor and glory, otherwise, all this is purely natural and will quickly fade rather than grow stronger.
As with any virtue, patience and Christlikeness is attained by degrees. First, we must have a genuine and serious desire to acquire patience and this desire must be activated through daily prayer. Second, we must resolve to prevent small crosses and contradictions from destroying our peace of soul. St. Teresa said, “If we bear slight things patiently, we shall acquire courage and strength to bear great things.” Thirdly, meditation on the Passion of Christ will increase our love of God and arouse in us an earnest desire of imitation: “Christ has suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps.” St. Paul tells us to consider Christ “Who endured such opposition from sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.”
The joy of serving God wells up in our hearts, enabling us, no matter how weak and timid we may seem to be, to carry the cross cheerfully and even triumphantly. A prime example took place in Paris during the horrors of the French Revolution:
“Condemned to the guillotine, a community of nuns was forced to pass through the abominable, storm-swept streets, where terror reigned supreme, to arrive at the place of their doom.
“The Sisters raised their serene voices, chanting the sublime hymn, ‘Veni Creator Spiritus.’ Never before, the listeners thought, had that anthem of majestic praise been so divinely sung — so much as if the chant of heaven itself had floated down and mingled with the melody. The celestial song did not cease when they ascended the stairs of the scaffold and the work of butchery went on. Voice after voice had to drop from the chorus as each nun bent under the blade, and at length one voice was heard alone sustaining the holy strain, with no faltering or cadence, even while the bloody blade fell and sealed the last martyr’s testimony. Over scaffolds and through blood, beset by slow sufferings and sharp tortures, continues the march of the followers of Our Lord, but, all the while, we will be sustained by the rations of His joy, and look gladly forward to His promised gift when the night cometh and we lay down our arms in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.