Lately, I have been struck by how hard, and yet how necessary, it is simply to be patient in the day-to-day life of being a Catholic. The media is full of goads to be impatient with oneself, with others, and with the world in general: Why are things not the way they should be, right now? Surely there is something that I (or everybody else) ought to be doing! Given that “doing something” very often translates into “being angry on social media about it,” this impulse to do something ought to be interrogated quite intensely.
I’ve been doing a fair bit of research lately into nineteenth-century English Catholicism. It turns out that times were tumultuous for Catholics then too (a particularly divisive point was the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility), and while there wasn’t electronic social media, newspapers, pamphlets, and letters provided plenty of opportunity for extremely heated rhetoric amongst Catholics—often rather disedifying for Protestants. Sound familiar?
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins lived and wrote at this time, and his poem “Patience” is fruitful for reflection in this regard. It is a poem that can be read both as inward-focused (as we struggle for patience with our own spiritual growth, or lack thereof) and as an engagement with the noisy, distracting, anxiety-inducing world around us—and as a reflection on the ways that we deal inwardly with exterior pressures and distractions.
Here is the text of the poem with my annotations from the Word on Fire Classics Ignatian Collection (which I co-edited).
Hopkins begins by recognizing that waiting is difficult. “Patience who asks / Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks; / To do without, take tosses, and obey.” We are called to bear our cross, whatever it may be—even though sometimes what we are called to bear is neither exciting nor dramatic. It may simply be gritting our teeth and not posting a snarky remark on Twitter.
When we are called to be patient, we may instead wish that we had war and wounds to deal with: conflicts and struggles that demand clear, direct action. Instead, our task may be to graciously “do without, take tosses, and obey.” Those are hard words, and ones that we modern people—especially we modern Americans—don’t like much at all. We only like to “do without” if we get to choose what, when, and how: self-denial on our own terms. We only like to obey if we agree. But it’s in the self-denial, acceptance, and obedience of what is given to us that true patience puts down its roots.
Ivy can grow so vigorously that it entirely covers a wall in a living carpet of green, glossy leaves. When it grows over a broken wall or a ruined house, it smooths out the rough edges, hides the broken corners, and makes the whole thing into something new and organic. Hopkins envisions patience as “heart’s ivy” covering over our “ruins of wrecked past purpose.” God may frustrate our plans, “wreck” our purposes, if they are not according to his will for us; patience allows the rough edges to be covered over.
As we survey the ruins of our self-centered plans, we may grow penitent as we recognize our own rebellion. The giving up of self-will can be agonizing: “We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills / To bruise them dearer.” Isn’t it enough to recognize that we were wrong? Do we really have to change how we live? Can’t we still have it our own way, at least sometimes?
Yet this is what grace is: God can, and will, do the transforming work that we cannot do for ourselves, when we ask for his help: “Yet the rebellious wills / Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.” Hopkins shows us that we can choose to ask God to bend our still-rebellious wills to him; we may be deeply frustrated by the self-denial asked of us, we may not feel or even want to be obedient, but we can choose to accept the self-denial and be obedient, even so.
Patience, hard thing! Yes, a hard thing, indeed, when we have so many temptations to be resentful and angry, and when it’s so easy to share and magnify those frustrations!
But what is the result of patience? “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.” We know how bees make honey. The bees patiently visit flower after flower, bringing back the tiny grains of pollen to the hive. Grain by grain, ever so slowly, the honey forms and, hidden within the hive, the crisp combs fill with its delicious sweetness.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Artwork: Vilhelm Hammershøi, “The Tall Windows,” 1913.