St Catherine of Siena said that patience isn’t so much a virtue as the test of all true virtue. If you haven’t any patience at all its ten to one you haven’t any virtues either that are worth writing home about. That brings us all down to size doesn’t it? It made me reflect on why I get so impatient if I have to wait for anything, whether it’s for the post to come, a train or ‘plane to arrive, or for my turn at the supermarket checkout. The truth of the matter is I hate waiting for anything, because I’m not in control, and who doesn’t like being in control, not only of events but of other people too? In short we want everyone to be at our ‘beck and call’, we want everything to revolve around us and to be at our service, when, where and how we choose. To say a person is impatient is just another way of saying that they are arrogant, full of themselves and full of their own importance.
Now it’s not particularly pleasant to realise that you are several million light years away from sanctity, but at least it’s a beginning. But what’s to be done about it, that’s the important thing. The answer is to be found in prayer, at least that’s what St Catherine said. Now she doesn’t just mean praying for patience, though there’s no harm in that, but practising patience inside of prayer itself. Most of us give up prayer before we’ve really started because nothing happens, and we are too impatient to learn to wait on God. All the Saints say the same thing – you only really learn patience by practising patience, and prayer is the best place to do it. St Luke is a case in point. What he has to say about prayer is of particular importance because he is merely handing on the teaching of Jesus Himself. He not only tells us how to address God, but what we ought to say to Him and what we ought to ask for too. But his most profound teaching on prayer is this: – no matter where you begin or how you progress, the time will come when you have done all that you can do, and then you have to learn how to wait on God. It is here that a person learns by practical experience that it is not they who are in control, but it’s God. He comes when He chooses not when we choose. Our job is to be ready at all times to receive Him like the wise virgins.
Waiting on God is easy when He seems to be close at hand listening to all we have to say and granting any request that we make of Him. That’s what we call cupboard love. But the real test of love is when we are prepared to go on loving, go on giving, and go on waiting, when He seems far away, when He doesn’t seem to be listening at all, or granting what is asked of Him. St John of the Cross was made a doctor of the Church because he has written more profoundly than anyone else about this time in prayer when we have to learn to wait on God. He calls it the “Dark Night of the Soul”, which is the title of his most famous book. He makes it quite clear that anyone who perseveres in prayer will inevitably come to the place where one has to wait on God amidst dryness, aridity and darkness, where there will be, not only many distractions, but temptations too, even temptations against faith, hope and charity.
When there’s no experience of the presence of God for prolonged periods of time you begin to ask, not just where is God, but is there a God, and if there is no God, what hope is there? Only the person who is prepared to persevere waiting on God despite these temptation will be purified and refined in such a way that they are ready and prepared to receive the One who comes when you least expect him. This is the place where Saints are made, as they learn to remain patiently waiting on God come what may. It’s the only place that we will learn true patience too by practising patience in adversity as best we can. Practising patience in prayer gradually enables the Holy Spirit to purge away the deep selfishness in us that prevents us from experiencing God’s presence within. St Augustine said that this presence surrounds and penetrates us as a sponge that is surrounded and penetrated at all times by the sea. This is a very profound analogy that helps us picture in our imaginations how His Love continually possesses every part of us. However the full truth is even more profound and takes us beyond anything our imaginations can picture. You see we are not sponges, but human beings with minds and hearts. If we freely allow the Love that constantly surrounds our physical being to enter our spiritual being our hearts and minds will be filled too and then surcharged as never before by the divine.
To begin with, and usually for a long time at the beginning of this contemplative prayer, these sublime truths leave us cold and we feel nothing, but gradually things begin to change. In God’s time not ours, His presence within suddenly becomes experiential. This usually happens when we least expect it and in a way that leaves us in no doubt that He is doing everything and we are doing no more than hanging on waiting on Him by the skin of our teeth. Then in brief moments of God-given grace we are able to experience something of the “height and the depths the length and the breadth of the Love of God that surpasses all our understanding”. One of the great poet-mystics, St Gregory of Nyssa, went further saying that our ultimate destiny is even more exciting, even more exhilarating. In order to express the inexpressible as best he could he added the Greek pre-fix ‘Ep’ to the word ecstasy to make the new word ‘Ep-ecstasy’. The force of this word means that we are called not just to ecstasy, but to continual ecstasy, to go out of ourselves again and again as we are endlessly transported out of ourselves and into God to eternity.
The ecstatic joy and supernatural bliss that never ends but only increases, is experienced beyond all our hopes and dreams in what is known in the Christian tradition as heaven. It is the reward of those who learn to wait patiently on God for Him to do in us what He created us for from the beginning.