We are deep in July now, and I have been thinking about patience today.
Back when I was teaching, if you had asked any of my students to describe me, probably one of the first descriptors you would have heard from almost any one of them was that: patience. Once, on a Friday afternoon in Spring, a student asked me if I had ever yelled, and all his classmates fell into an earnest, curious silence waiting for me to answer. If I had a trademark, it was patience. There were upsides to this, certainly. Being told I was patient by the ones who struggled to write an introductory paragraph and needed slow, painstaking help, by the keyed-up, anxiety-ridden ones who were used to grating on the nerves of most adults they came into contact with, by the talkative ones, the attention-hungry performers, was a compliment. I never got upset, always had the time, and that was something they could rely on every day they set foot inside my class. But being told I was patient was often also an indictment, though usually a gentle one, and I knew it. Coming from some kids, the ones who did what they were asked the first time around, who came into my class having completed every page of the reading without fail, who opened their binders to that quarter’s scripture before the bell even rang and stood ready and waiting, it meant: You let too much slide, Miss Hodgkins. Some days, your patience does none of us justice.
So when I think of patience, I often think of it in that context: the way it operates for me as a double-sided coin: a gentleness to those around me, but also an excuse, an abdication of responsibility, an escape into passivity.
But today I have been coming at the thing from another angle. Because in some ways I am not patient, for good or for ill. This will reveal the deep veins of selfishness in me which adulthood has not rooted out in the least, but whenever there is something which really directly relates to me, to my own well-being and comfort and satisfaction, I am not patient at all. Summertime reminds me of this, without fail, in its awkward, unreliable rhythms and the way we all leave town and come back only to leave again, and this one has been a particularly good example. It has been my first summer in Vancouver and sunlight here comes before I wake and lasts well past dinner. The days not only move slowly, but sometimes, despite my busy-ness, they seem to sit still. When will the sun set? When will the balance between rest and action return? When will the heart beat properly again?
So with all my annual angst and impatient kicking against the goads which mostly no one can hear but myself (and a few lucky loved ones!), I thought today of a couple of things about patience which I hadn’t before.
First, I thought that perhaps I could get a better, deeper grasp on patience, really dig into up to my elbows, if I could stop thinking of it as a virtue intended for use in the love of others, but, as perhaps all virtues ought to be, as an entrance into wisdom, a way of learning old rhythms anew. I thought that if I waited long enough, if I were patient, there might be time for something to come from very far away. So the fruit of this patience today, while my late lunch slowly cooked, was found not in the eventually browned Italian sausages but in wandering out onto the sun-dazed patio and chewing absently on a fresh mint leaf, like we used to do as little girls in our North Carolina backyard when it was a wilderness and we played at adventure. I stood still instead of straining forward, and there, on my tongue, was a gift.
But more than that, and conversely, the other thing about patience I became convinced of today was this: patience needs an object. Though we may be called to stand in the sun, we are not really supposed to do so absently. We are supposed to direct our patience toward someone. When my old friend Hopkins began a sonnet way back when with, “Patience, hard thing!” he was not really talking about the patience I directed toward my students, that we are called to offer our friends and families and neighbors. He was talking about the kind of patience which I struggle to exercise when July rolls around, about the patience you use to quell the thing gnawing in your gut. But who, pray tell, is the object of that patience? To say that it’s our own selves veers too near the realm of patience as excuse and passivity. But if we are called to stand still in a given spot and be longsuffering there perhaps the object of our patience ought the be the One who does the calling. Indeed, he may well be the Object of all virtues, and they may only ever be complete virtues at all when directed towards Him. He is the maker and breaker of rhythms, the crusher of foes and life-breather of hearts, the one who separated the light from the dark in the first place.
He is patient. Patience fills His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.