Patience. As you think of that word, does it bring to mind strength or weakness? Is it wise perseverance or wobbly indecision?
Perhaps you might say, “Well, it depends on the situation.” That gets to a critical point about patience: that it is one part of a larger virtue, that of courage. You might also remember that courage, or fortitude, is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are not left on our own to find the courage to be patient; God comes with that gift.
In theology, courage has two aspects, and the form it takes depends, as noted, on the situation. When bold action is needed to do what is right and good, courage helps us overcome our fears and timidity. We might think of dramatic examples like the people of Ukraine defending their freedom, or those in health care, education, public safety, and essential workers who demonstrated their dedication during the many months of COVID. But courage helps us in our everyday choices to make that gift to a trusted charity, or gently correct a misunderstanding, or to take responsibility and tell the truth when a lie would be so much easier. But it is also courage to be patient. The literal meaning of the word in its Latin root is “the capacity to suffer.”
When difficulties or wrongs confront us in ways we cannot change or control, it is courage to accept them without losing faith, hope, or charity. We need this kind of courage when we face illness, or rejection, or losses in life. And sometimes, when things just go wrong in traffic, or at work, or with family and friends.
To have both poles of courage – action when possible, patience when prudent – makes us open to the whole of that gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is worth hearing again the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel this weekend:
There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’ (Luke 13:6-9)
Jesus is the gardener in this parable. He gives us time for growth and improvement; he lavishes opportunities and grace to cultivate our spiritual lives; he does not simply wait but helps us to develop as his disciples gradually. And he is doing the same in others’ lives as well. There will come a time when no more growth is possible; but that truth does not lead us to resign ourselves to fate, but rather to concentrate on our free decision to become better people than we are today.
In moments when we become impatient with problems large and small, may the words of Scripture inspire us: “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15); and “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?
Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:1, 14).