2006 July August/Patience

For the average man, ordinary life has become a dull drab thing; and human nature is not satisfied with dullness or drabness, not with the glory of eternity haunting its dreams. So we have resorted to that vicarious heroism which is hero-worship. We let someone else take of our heroism for us; in our admiration and applause for their great acts, we satisfy the yearning of our hearts for the great things for which we were made.

Radically that means that the ordinary man of our century has become resigned to the loss of the heroic, or at least, he has been forced to a frank abandonment of the heroic. He does not like it. If work and difficulty, family life and virtue are dull, drab things they will automatically become things to escape from, not sources of inspiration; to them man will stoop only under considerable duress, a physical duress that is the instrument of slavery.

The fact is that human life cannot go along humanly without heroism; nor can the human heart endure without heroism entering intimately into its actions and its goals. It cannot be satisfied with vicarious heroism, mere hero-worship. For courage is as necessary for the living of human life as air, or food, or drink; not only the courage of the venturesome, but also that principal courage that holds on, even when holding on is the best a man can do. Christ did not take the heroic out of the average man’s life; He frankly insisted that life was permeated with the heroic. Works and labours, difficulties and perils are not drab necessities but constant inspirations, constant sources of greatness, constant tests of tremendous courage.

The men of our day need heroism in their lives not one bit less that did the men of Christ’s day. Our whole life is an adventure of incredible courage towards incredible goals and fought with weapons of incredible strength.

The Christian can admire heroism. He can pay it the tribute of respect, which comes naturally from the human heart confronted with great courage. But much more than that, he himself can be a hero; indeed, he must be a hero. And so it is that the tribute he pays to heroism is one much more deep, more understanding, more heartfelt. It is the tribute of one hero to another, even though that tribute is the tribute that the Christian sinner gives to the sinless Christ.

Heroic fortitude is not only found in attack but also in endurance in spite of difficulties. This second aspect is not as attractive as the first and therefore is easily underestimated. Yet something of the splendour of this courage was caught in Christ’s simple exhortation:

“Possess your souls in patience.” Its full brilliance bursts upon us when we remember that no one can follow the path of virtue long without patience, and the path of virtue is the path of heroism. Patience, after all, deals with the sorrows of life; it holds the soul upright under the crushing blows of this sorrow. The extent of sorrow in life is an indication of the extent and necessity of patience. Only so can a man possess his soul; for possession implies quiet ownership, calm dominion, and it is patience which quietens the uproar of the passions and vices. Patience not only forbids unjust revenge, as does justice; it not only bars hate, as does charity; or anger, as does meekness. It even excludes the undue sorrow that is the root of all these sins. Patience is one of the humble, workaday virtues; but it is, in a real sense, the root and guardian of all virtues, not causing them but removing the impediments to their operation. Do away with patience and the gates are open for a flood of discontent and sin, for sorrow will still find its way into human life.

It is not patience that enables a prisoner to endure indignities calmly that he might later on have a better opportunity for revenge against the guard. Patience endures evil, not to commit evil, but rather that evil may not be committed. It finds its place in our daily lives in such crises as the separation from friends, the death of loved ones, sickness, slander and misfortune.

The natural question is, just what can patience do in the face of these things? Well, if we have it on its lowest level, we can at least endure these things without telling the neighbours about it. On a higher level, we bear with these things without telling ourselves about it over and over again in the kind of whining self-pity that sours human life. On its highest level, patience enables us to endure sorrows with positive joy.

That is a hard thing? Yes, it is. In the natural order it is nearly impossible, done only in view of some much greater natural good; although long experience may give us a kind of hopeless resignation from the realisation that impatience does not help but rather increases sorrow. In the supernatural order, God’s patience with our own weaknesses, forgetfulness and ingratitude, is a constant example before our eyes; we can never draw a curtain over the spectacle of Calvary’s divine patience; and the sublime patience of the saints is not something we are ever in a hurry to forget. Then, too, the realisation of its power to satisfy for our sins, its significance for heaven, and closer friendship with Christ, through its power of merit, is a constant spur to our patience. In a word, supernatural patience can be a joyous thing; but even supernaturally it is never an easy thing.

Patience runs through life because sorrow runs all through life; and, because our human life is measured in time, the courage of perseverance must colour every work, every day, every life. Perhaps it is because we are made for eternity that we find it so hard to face the difficulty of time; whatever the reason, we do find duration itself a great difficulty. We do not hesitate to give our dinner to a hungry man; yet we find it extremely difficult to give up a small part of that meal for the forty days of Lent. We do not mind a day’s work; but the same work day after day is an altogether different thing. It is easy to give a moment’s kindness, but not a lifetime of kindness. For real lengths of time are a serious obstacle to human living.

Perseverance is a dogged, unswerving, unbeatable courage whose beauty and grace are often hidden in the weary stumbling of its walk and the grey fatigue of its face. No military bands greet perseverance; no trumpets salute it, no parades are staged in its honour, no decorations are publicly conferred. There is not even the human help of racing blood that comes in facing open attack. Perseverance knows only the dull, relentless thud of the moments of time and the fighting heart holding fast to the necessity of fighting through to the end.