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Faith is Patience

So Advent has come and gone and with it, the liturgical theme of “waiting” for God.  Every year, we rehearse the story, we light the candles, we read the Scriptures, and we wait for the Christ child.  Every year, we are told, Jesus comes to us anew.  Every year, our waiting ends on Christmas day only to begin again next year.  Waiting, it sometimes seems, is endless.

There has been a noticeable dissatisfaction with waiting in various corners of the blogosphere this Advent season.  Sometimes this is framed as a frustration with the liturgical calendar to actually shape Christ’s church in meaningful ways (see here and here, for example).  Other times it comes in the form of a fairly raw reflection on the existential pain and frustration that come along with waiting for God.  Whatever the emphasis, there is a discernible impatience with patience in these posts and others that I’ve found myself thinking about and resonating with often over the last little while.

I don’t like waiting, truth be told, whether it’s during Advent or any other time.  Undoubtedly the process plays some important role in my spiritual formation that could not be achieved any other way, but it rarely feels like it.  And while paying attention to the Christian calendar certainly keeps me mindful of the story of God and is preferable to organizing my life according to shopping days, it can get pretty easy to wonder if it is simply the substituting of one vain repetition for another.  Waiting can be a spiritually formative time, but it can also provide fertile ground for cynicism.

To be sure, there is much to be said for a liturgical emphasis on waiting.  At the very least, it acknowledges that things aren’t right in our world, and it prevents us from blithely assuming (pretending?) that faith in Christ is the gateway into “the life you’ve always wanted” or health and wealth or some other such nonsense.  In acknowledging that faith cannot be separated from some form of waiting, there is at least an acknowledgment that there is a holy restlessness built into the structure of faith.

But, like so many things, waiting gets old.  We get tired of waiting.  We get fed up with the “in between” time in which we live.  Whatever theological work might be accomplished with the “now/not yet” understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God, the same is not always true existentially.  Words like “tension” and “waiting” sound nice, at times, because they give us official handles to deal with the ambiguity and confusion of existence in a world we believe to be guided and sustained by a good God, but sometimes tension is painful and disorienting.  And sometimes waiting just plain sucks.

After a bit of a hiatus, I returned to finish Tomáš Halík’s Patience with God this morning and came across a few relevant (and provocative) quotes. Halík is Catholic priest from the Czech Republic writing very specifically for what he calls the “Zacchaeuses” of the world—the doubters, the unsure, the noncommittal, those, perhaps, sick of waiting. Throughout the book, Halík maintains that one of the chief differences between Christians and atheists is patience:

In the closing crescendo of his paean to love, St. Paul writes that love is patient. Yes, and faith too is patient, if it really is faith. Faith is patience, in fact. In the same way that love for another person—its strength and authenticity—manifests and proves itself in its patience with the other, so also is faith present (albeit hidden, implicit, and anonymous) in a certain form of patience in the face of all of life’s difficulties, hardships, and ambiguities. And it is in that patience—and maybe above all therein—that its strength and authenticity manifest themselves….

In the final analysis, the patience we exercise in the face of life’s constant enigmas, by resisting the temptation to defect and resort to simplistic answers, is always our patience with God, who is not “at hand.” But what else is faith but this openness in the face of God’s hiddenness, the bold “yes” (or at least “yearnful maybe”) of our hope in the profound stillness of God’s silence, that small but tenacious flame that bursts forth again and again from the ashes of resignation even in the longest, darkest, and coldest of nights? In Christianity there is no way of separating faith and hope—and patience is their common attribute and fruit.

Is it possible for our waiting to be characterized by both frustration and gratitude? Restlessness and joy?  Anger and peace?  Protest and acceptance?  I think Halík would say that it is.  I think he would say that it is indicative of a faith that is both honest about life and open to the possibilities of God.

This passage from Halík has stayed with me throughout the day.  All of us, whether we are religious or not, have to come to some kind of peace, however tenuous, with waiting.  There’s no other choice.  And if I must wait, Halík’s conception has much to commend itself.  I like his emphasis on the role of patience in faith and how it may just be a sign of strength (as opposed to wishful thinking).  I like the image of a “small but tenacious flame” coming out of “the ashes of resignation.”  I like the idea of patient faith as a “resisting” of the “temptation to defect” to despair and cynicism.

I want to wait like that.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    A sacramental relationship, helps with the waiting. If you believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist then you have communion. If you believe in the reality of the Holy Spirit then there can be bonding in the confessional, there can be bonding in contemplative prayer. It may only be a faint glimpse, a momentary impulse but it feels real; it feels true and it helps with the waiting…maybe it’s like your waiting to see this band…say U2 :). Having the sacraments is like having an album to listen to while you wait. Not having the sacraments is just like having word of mouth about this really great band but not a sound of music to sustain you.

    I’m pretty sure that without sacramental mystery I really wouldn’t be able to “wait like that” at all.

    December 27, 2010
    • So what would it look like to “not have” the sacraments or this kind of sacramental relationship?

      (If I didn’t know better, I would say that you seem to be suggesting that the only way to wait effectively or appropriately is as a Roman Catholic, and that all other attempts or approaches are like struggling on with only the rumours of a good band… :).)

      December 28, 2010
      • Paul Johnston #

        lol…no I can’t, with any integrity, say that being Roman Catholic is the only way…though it would make everything a lot easier if we all just got on the same team, and we are the biggest and there is a lot of Biblical support for one body and….I digress.

        What I’m trying to say is that like our Jewish ancestors, we can still interact with the person of God while we wait. We still have prophets, we still have miracles, we still have visionaries, even more, we have the grace of the sacraments whereby direct communion with God through the Holy Spirit is possible. We’re still waiting but it’s waiting with certainty, waiting on someone we’ve encountered already.

        As for your question I can only tell you what a non sacramental, non mystical relationship looked like for me. It started out as social gospel oriented became something more like secular humanism and ultimately, if not atheistic, certainly indifferent.

        December 28, 2010
      • Ha! Well, I prefer to think that we already are on the same team, even if it is a strange and diverse team with lots of different ideas about how the game should be played.

        Re: waiting on/interacting with the God we’ve already encountered (and who continues to come to us) while we wait?

        I couldn’t agree more.

        December 29, 2010
  2. Ken #

    The Revelation to John connects patient endurance with faith. In his day it was persecution that Christians needed to patiently endure.

    In spite of the waiting traditionally associated with Advent, and notwithstanding my agreement with what you have written here and with the revelation to John, I think Christmas has more to do with new beginnings than with patient endurance or faith. I think going through Christmas, whether we do so religiously or secularly, is a process of starting over in our lives – it is very much the same as a New Year celebration. As the year goes on month to month we do look forward to the coming of a new beginning, and we attempt to wrap up the old year as best as we can. In that sense, Christ does come again and again, Christmas after Christmas. Between Christmases we have the Sabbath, another day of new beginnings, founded on the first beginning, that comes again and again. And between Sabbath’s we have prayer and other ways to participate in the moment of creation and in the coming of the Messiah, to start over.

    And notwithstanding my agreement with the sound connection you have made between faith and patience, I think we can also see faith, through the gifts of Christmas and the Sabbath and prayer, as something much easier than patience. It is simple participation in these days and ways of new beginnings.

    December 27, 2010
    • I agree with much of what you’ve said here, Ken. I suppose ideas like these were what I was gesturing at in my second-to-last paragraph, but you’ve said it much more eloquently and with a deeper and richer framework to support it.

      December 28, 2010

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