When people start to really hit their stride at adults, they will often laugh at themselves for what gets them excited. “You know you’re really grown up when you’re thrilled to get a new toaster,” they might say, or: “A clear sign of maturity: I can’t wait to tell my friends about these amazing new dryer sheets I discovered.”
Spiritual adulthood is kind of like that, too. The things that you once passed over barely noticing, much less valuing, now rock your world. I remember discovering, for instance, that prudence was actually kind of a big deal.
I had once considered it sort of a loser’s virtue, something that you practice if you don’t have the imagination to excel at anything more interesting. But then my circumstances changed, my life got rearranged, and I realized that not only was prudence really hard, but the steady practice of it could yield beautiful things. And that’s why it’s one of the cardinal virtues! Turns out the church knows what it’s talking about; how about that.
This year’s revelation: Patience. Patience is technically a secular virtue, and not one of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) or one of the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude), or even one of the gifts of the holy spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord). But when you imbue a secular virtue with faith, then it becomes something sacred.
Patience, like prudence, maybe doesn’t sound very impressive. It sounds like not doing something, and since when is that something to get excited about? Patience also gets a bad rap because there are all kinds of harmful or thoughtless or cowardly ways to be patient.
You could patiently wait for someone to stop hurting you or your family, even as they give no indication they are trying to change. This is bad for your family, bad for you, and bad for the perpetrator, as it just gives them more opportunities to sin.
Or you could be endlessly patient with yourself while you do the exact same stupid or harmful things over and over and over again, without ever jamming a wedge in those spinning wheels and taking a closer look at what is making them keep turning.
Or you could be patient with a bad situation because you think, consciously or unconsciously, that it’s exactly the crappy kind of thing that a crappy person like you deserves, and why would you even dare to hope for something better, like decent people get?
Or you could be outwardly patient, “keeping sweet” and putting on a mask of unperturbed tranquillity, while under the surface you’re plotting how to get even in subtle ways; or maybe telling yourself that you just need to sit tight until God swoops down and avenges you, humiliating and crushing your enemies, which is something you will enjoy heartily.
You could certainly call these things patience, because you’re quietly waiting without fussing or fighting while something undesirable continues. That is secular patience. But sacred patience is something very different.