Spirituality of the Readings
Waiting for Patience
Did you ever stay awake on Christmas eve as a kid? And sneak into a hidey hole in order to see the Christmas tree being decorated? I surely did.
We kids also had big felt stockings hung on each of our bedroom doors, and I remember trying to keep an eye open during the night to see Santa or the Good Fairy or at least somebody putting prizes into it. I watched all night, until I woke up in the morning to find a bulging stocking, mysteriously full.
“I want patience and I want it now,” or so the joke goes. I suppose patience is not a virtue of the young, fine, but remember, the purpose of Advent is to wait!
Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, has a poem on patience that speaks to this first Sunday of Advent. Please see the footnote for a prose version of this great poem.* And after that, it will help to read it slowly, out loud.
Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, patience is! Patience who asks,
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.**
Our dearest plans and purposes often end up in wreckage, just like ancient buildings did. Hopkins says that patience resembles a field of beautiful ivy, soothing its way over the wreckage, creating soft composure. “Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves”: this phrase doesn’t just remind us of how ivy looks, the words bathe us in the luxury, the peace and the relief of such a sight.
Patience becomes a “delicious kindness,” a honey that fills the combs of our lives.
God’s kindness provides us with comfort and also time—an allowance of days, weeks, years, and even a lifetime—to prepare, to get ready, to desire, and gradually, along the way, to receive.
Patience. If there were nothing worth waiting for, then such a virtue would be silly. Yet the birth of Christ into this world and into our hearts is quite worth the waiting for. Some object that his birth already did happen, but it is still in the process, in a surprising, mysterious way. We are still mean to our neighbors. We still hide truth from those who love us. We envy and lust after what is not ours. And the terrors of evil lurk all around us in this twenty-first century.
What should we do, try harder? Yes. But the real answer is a patient waiting and welcoming for the Spirit of God to be born into our lives. And to contribute to this world every way we can.
John Foley, SJ
* Taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, edited by Catherine Phillips (London, New York, etc., Oxford University Press, 1986), #176.
Parts of this poem may be difficult to understand immediately, so I want to be crass and suggest the meaning in prose, stanza by stanza:
First stanza: Patience is difficult because usually it grows only in adversity.
Second stanza: Yet patience is like ivy, because it gradually covers the residues of
our lives with quiet beauty (“purple eyes” are ivy berries).
Third stanza: Our hearts are like stones chafing against each other. They bruise
themselves dearer (the word “dearer” is used in England to mean “at great
cost”). Yet even so, we ask God to bend our defiant wills to him.
Fourth stanza: A comparison of God to the bees who—patiently—fill up
** I was lucky (graced) to have written a liturgical musical piece that is a version of the First Reading. You can find it here.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University