Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Patience Is a Virtue

I have to try to be honest about several things tonight. First confession: I don't always read all these books for the right motive. Making myself read a certain number of pages every day, I gloss over the words some days and get nothing at all out of them. On other days, I read in order to fulfill some personal goal that will make me feel better about myself. This approach easily leads to pride, for, as the Authorized Version says, "Knowledge puffeth up." But at my best moments, I read because I believe that I'm supposed to and that it will do me good. Sometimes I'm forced to believe this.

Take this week, for instance. I needed something light to carry around for three days while I finished my first Aquinas assignment, so I jumped ahead and started Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. This Christian classic's theme can be summed up in three words: Suffer Hardship Patiently. I had just wrestled with this topic in relation to the Archbishop of Fardles in War in Heaven, and it came up again as I started this next book the very next day, another of the coincidences that constantly grace my reading experience. So I think I'm supposed to deal with it. And I know I need to: I don't suffer well, and I don't have much patience. Sadly, you can ask my wife for examples of that one. But -- and here's confession no. 2 -- I don't know what it means.

Now I'm afraid that my prose from here on will be as scattered as my thoughts on the subject, but if I'm to record my journey through great books faithfully, I have to forge ahead. I wish I could approach the kind of life à Kempis describes. If we set our hearts only on Jesus, we'll have peace, he says. If we truly love the Lord, troubles will come and go, and we will remain steady. I would love to stay steady. But what does he mean? Steady in what? Does he mean that we should be so in love with Jesus that we don't even feel troubles? That the Christian should just stay "happy all the day"? As much as I would like to have that experience, I don't think I ever will, and I'm not at all sure I'm supposed to have it. If the goal is the imitation of Christ, then I have to remember that Jesus wept, that he was sometimes vexed with his disciples, that he was moved with compassion, that He begged the Father for a pass on the crucifixion. Pain hurts. If it doesn't hurt, it doesn't require patience, and I'm supposed to have patience. So I think I'm OK feeling discomfort under adversity.

I spent many years thinking that suffering for Christ and sharing in his sufferings meant suffering persecution in return for proclaiming his name. But I changed my mind a few years ago. I based my first theory on the notion that Christ suffered only on the cross. But He suffered all of his life. Again, he wept, unfaithful people bothered him, illness and death made Him sad. I believe now that any time I suffer in these ways, I share his sufferings. (It's actually better to say that He took on human suffering with the incarnation and shared our sufferings. As a result, any time we suffer, we share his sufferings because He already did the sharing.) But how do I do it patiently? Does it mean I stay quiet while I hurt? À Kempis often says we should "turn inward" and seek God. It sounds spiritual, but if he means that we should close our eyes and quit responding to the world, I can't buy it. I have responsibilities and duties. God tells me to work for a living and to be kind to other people. If I close my eyes every time I hurt, I'll constantly neglect these other godly acts.

À Kempis says that suffering builds up rewards for us in Heaven and that we should be glad for the opportunities to suffer that come our way. James, of course, agrees. But À Kempis goes on to say that we should not even run from adversity. Any time we try to get away from it, he says, it shows that we love comfort more than we love God. But can James really mean that we should sit and take whatever pain we experience? Should I quit taking medicine? Why does Paul tell Timothy to take some wine for his stomach? Why not just let Timothy suffer and gain more jewels for his crown? I seriously don't mean to be flippant, but if I find that I'm standing under a cold drip, is it ungodly to take a step to the side?

À Kempis has many good things to say about trouble that comes from other people. Christ bore with these jerks; why can't you? They cause trouble because they're flawed; so are you. Getting angry only indicates an un-Christian sense of superiority. And so on. À Kempis recommends asking an abusive person once or twice to change his ways and then, if he doesn't, to suffer patiently. This advice seems wise, and patience seems clearly in this case to include staying quiet. But again, am I not allowed to break off a painful acquaintance that involves no commitment? Or am I supposed to keep going back and just stand quietly while the abuse comes?

Many relationships do involve commitment, though. I know, for instance, that I can't simply avoid everyone at work that hurts me. But the context of work raises another haunting problem that truly puzzles me. In some relationships, I have a duty to correct others; as a teacher, for instance, I have an obligation to keep working with a student who comes for help. This office of mentoring has nothing to do with my moral superiority and everything to do with my position in a hierarchy. It's easy to know what to do when the student needs correction on study habits or counterpoint writing. But what if the student is annoying or disrespectful? Do I correct her on this behavior as well? Is it possible to separate the personal affront from the academic discourtesy and explain to the student that she won't learn as much with her bad attitude?

Or what if the trouble comes from my boss? At first it seems obvious that I should just quietly defer to my superior. But what if the rules of the workplace define the faculty as a democratic body that holds the Director responsible? Is it then my Christian duty to hold him responsible, or is it my Christian duty to suffer abuse quietly? (Oh, I know that many times there's a third option: get some perspective and see that what your boss is doing isn't "abuse" after all.) The Bible talks about masters and slaves. Ah! It would be so easy (it seems) to know what to do if I were a slave. No Slave Handbook would tell me about channels of recourse and democratic duties and obligations to hold other members of the community accountable. A slave has no recourse, no rights. Do the work, get hit, shut up. The path is clear.

I have wrestled with these issues for a long time, and now my reading (as well as various messes I've gotten myself into lately) has me on the mat again. But I've had some victories over the years. As I said, I've learned that God rewards much more of my suffering than I once thought, so I have that encouragement to spur me on any time I want to meditate on it. And I have definitely become less anxious in the last few years and more in control of my emotions. But here are a couple more ideas that seem to be coming clear recently.

(1) All these questions have to do with me. What should I do? What can't I figure this out? Why am I so troubled by thoughts about trouble? Should I quit trying to figure it out and instead just patiently suffer troubling thoughts about patiently suffering trouble? I. Me. Mine. If I were to focus instead on the needs of others, my thoughts would be clearer. If the annoying student only makes me think about what to do about myself, I fall into the familiar quagmire. If I think about what she needs, I know better what to do. If I think about the other professors she's tormenting, I get even more new ideas about what to do. (But I still know to thank God for Graduation.)

(2) "Patience" sounds like it should mean smiling quietude. But the English word actually only literally means "suffering," so my native tongue obfuscates the problem: of course I can't figure out how to "suffer patiently" if all that phrase means is to suffer while suffering. On the other hand, the Greek word used most often for "patience," a word that early English translations rendered as "longsuffering," comes from roots that mean "breathing hard for a long time." The "breathing hard" part can even mean "passion" or "anger." That network of meanings doesn't suggest to me quietude or smiling at all! It suggests to me much less about attitude and more about action. It reminds me of perseverance in running a long-distance race. I think suffering patiently means that I should continue to exert myself under duress, doing right even when I'm troubled or burdened or distracted. Aquinas doesn't talk about patience; he talks instead about the classically named fortitude: keep moving toward the noble goal even when it's painful to do so. ("Stay on target. Stay on target.") Be strong. Take heart. Fight the good fight. This is starting to sound quite Biblical (the part that wasn't from Star Wars anyway), so I think I'm on the right track.

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