Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dietrich von Hildebrand on Patience, pt. 2: Holy Patience

[325] Patience respects the hierarchy of goods

The patient man, in the first place, preserves the right order in the scale of his interests. The requirements of the moment, no matter how imperious, can never displace or overshadow his attention to higher values. The intensity of his attention to a thing will not be determined by its dynamic appeal, its aggressive presence at a given moment or the noise with which it is advertised, but by the objective weight of its content. His emotional accents are ordered in a fashion proportionate to the objective order of values. He possesses a prompt readiness to bear any cross that he cannot avert from himself without injury to charity or infringement of some duty.

He has the art of waiting, and he knows that, though he might justly reproach somebody with having caused him a needless loss of time, a loveless rebuke sometimes amounts to a greater evil before God than a measure of lost time. Our neighbor's sluggishness, too, as his other awkward and annoying traits, belongs to the things we must bear in charity.

It is because he generally refrains from letting himself go that the patient man achieves this order. He maintains himself at a certain distance from his nature and its stirrings. Even when intensely set upon attaining a purpose, he does not lapse from the status of habitare secum [dwelling within oneself]. He watches lest he overestimate a thing [326] merely because he is striving after it at the moment. He is on guard against delivering himself over to the autonomous logic of that striving which tends to impart an undue weight to any chosen aim merely on the strength of its being chosen.

Patience never pursues limited aims inordinately

In the second place, he never engages himself totally for a partial aim—which means that he never becomes blind to the consideration he owes to others, restricting his vision to himself and his own affairs as an exclusive whole. He knows that such a total engagement is illicit; that God demands of us a confrontation of all things with Him and with one another. Still less would he push such a total engagement to its extreme limit, at the cost of sacrificing even his own important concerns of another order. He would not stake everything on a card, to the point of dissolving his fundamental nexus with God—as the Flying Dutchman who, impatient to round a cape more rapidly, wagers his soul thereon; or as Esau who sells his birthright for a mess of pottage.

Though we are at liberty, and in certain cases, in duty to bound to do everything in our power to attain a legitimate purpose, no obstacle and no ill-success must ever be allowed to throw us off our balance. The true Christian is determined to preserve in all circumstances his open and devoted attitude to God: that basic constitution of his soul which guards him against ever losing hold of the habitare secum; for he is well aware that he cannot remain in communion with God except in such a state of composure and self-possession.

Patience recognizes the sovereignty of God over time

Above all, the true Christian never pretends to a false position of supremacy over the universe. Indeed, Christian patience issues [327] from religio: the consciousness of being a creature of God, whose property we are, without whom we can achieve nothing, and in whose hands all our endeavors, actions, and accomplishments are placed. The true Christian assents to his creaturely dependence on God, and consciously derives from it the informing principle of his life. "My days are in Thy hands" (Ps. 30:16).

He knows that God is also the Lord over Time; that He has assigned to the course of events its temporal extension; that we must recognize the interval of time that separates the taking of a decision from the reaching of the intended aim as a reality willed by God: "All things have their season: and in their times all things pass under heaven" (Eccles. 3:1).

He loathes the hybris [hubris] which lies in the pretension to override the autonomous operation of the causae secundae and to secure effects by a mere fiat. That is why patience in this first and inferior sense, too, is an integral component of a life centered in Christ. It contains a specific response to the omnipotence of God and to our absolute dependence on Him, as well as an acceptance of our creaturely finiteness. He who has patience abides by the Truth; the impatient man, posing at least in a partial sense as though he were God, submits to the bondage of the illusions of pride.

Patience is appropriate even when pursuing high goods

The second form of patience belongs to a much higher level. It refers to the realization of things valuable in themselves, and in particular, the spreading of the kingdom of God. It is in this context, again, that the second dimension of patience—that which makes it akin to constancy and perseverance—assumes its full significance. Here it is a question of intrinsically noble and all-important aims, whose furtherance we ought to seek with impetuous zeal. The moral advancement of ourselves and of others, the triumph of justice, the dissemination of the true Faith, the [328] conversion and the progress of a soul specially entrusted to our care—these, to be sure, are things for which we must yearn in our every fiber and strive after with our whole being; our concern for these can never be too intense.

Woe to those who can take but a moderate and conditional interest in these aims. With a burning eagerness should we engage in their service; for "the kingdom of God suffers violence." So far as these things are concerned, it would be wrong of us to take our time. Rather we should emulate the response of St. Matthew the Apostle to the inexorable call, Sequere me: "Jesus... saw a man sitting in the customhouse, named Matthew; and he saith to him: Follow me. And he arose up and followed him" (Matt. 9:9).

Thus, too, did St. Peter and St. Andrew leave their fishing nets and all their work, and without glancing back, follow Christ. No less immediate and wholehearted was the response of St. Anthony, who, upon hearing the words of the Gospel, at once went to live as a hermit in the desert. No less eager and integral, many centuries later, was the response of St. Francis of Assisi.

And yet, even in this zeal, holy patience is absolutely necessary, and an essential part of holiness. For holy patience means our response to the truth that it is not we but God alone who determines the proper day and hour for the fruitful performance of certain actions and even more exclusively, the ripening of our seed and the harvest of our labors.

The rapidity of our immediate response may sometimes differ in our inward dedication and our outward actions

A keen distinction must be made between our inward dedication to God and to His kingdom in ourselves and in others, and our action proper (on ourselves and on others). The call of God once perceived, our response cannot follow quickly enough. We should immediately and unconditionally respond to the sequere me, giving [329] ourselves to God without demur or reserve as did Mary: "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word." All hesitation here would be a perilous error.

But this unhampered inward dedication to God does not by itself involve the performance of all single acts which it entails in a general and essential sense. Particularly does this caution apply to extrinsic and public action, that is, the works of the apostolate. 

Certain saints—among them, as we have seen, St. Francis and St. Anthony the hermit—immediately drew the full consequences from their conversion. But this is a great privilege of grace. Our sense of discretion must enlighten us about whether we may take the decisive step with its full implications at once, or had better remain for a period in inward maturing. There exists a danger of skipping over necessary stages.

Sometimes it also happens that a sincere but not so highly privileged Christian, instead of awaiting a more unmistakable and concrete call of God, overreaches himself in a kind of natural enthusiasm and anticipates certain acts fraught with grave obligations, without being able to posit them with a true inward decisiveness. Many converts immediately want to enter a religious Order, though they lack actual vocation and have not measured the whole significance of such an enhanced dedication to God.

The Church knows this danger; that is why she requires an adequate interval of inner maturing for all great steps in religious life. Unless a particular and a rare grace makes up for it, man needs an appropriate space of time for all deep and great things.

The attitudes deep things require cannot, in general, attain their complete validity and reality except after a period of organic development, whose length varies greatly according to each case. For every deep, fateful word there is a fullness of time in which alone it can be legitimately and fruitfully spoken. Anticipate it hastily by acting without discretion, and your utterance of it will be shadowy, devoid of maturity, and invalid. Again, let the "destined hour" pass [330] unused, and you will no longer be able to speak that word except in an empty and purely formal fashion.

It is touching to read how the chamberlain in the Acts of the Apostles hastens to be baptized by the deacon Philip; for him, thanks to a special grace of God, the destined hour—the fullness of time—was at hand there and then. But the Church by no means modelled [sic] her general practice in admitting converts upon these cases, recorded in apostolic times, of an instantaneous and definitive conversion.

On the contrary, in the first centuries she imposed on the catechumens a long course of preparation through the successive stages of which they had to pass before being admitted to Baptism. Even today, every adult baptism must be preceded by a certain period of instruction and maturing. As regards the preparation for monastic life, the Church only allows the taking of temporary vows at first; final vows require a preparatory stage. Nor does she admit a definitive private vow of virginity without an antecedent temporary one. Thus, in forming these decisive resolutions concerning our inner and personal life, too, we must exercise holy patience, and accord time the significance in human affairs with which God has invested it.

Evangelization also calls for patience

Even more does the same caution apply to the apostolate or our activity devoted to the winning of other people's souls. Anxious as we may be at once to communicate the Truth we have unmeritedly [sic] received and to light up other souls with the fire Christ has kindled in ours, we must always bear in mind that we ourselves cannot fruitfully sow before the divine seed has unfolded to a certain degree in our own souls—which, again, means a period of maturing.

Undoubtedly a special grace of God may overrule this, too; but generally speaking, a time of silence must precede the time to [331] speak. St. Paul, after his conversion, lived in silence for several years before he started his work. Nay, the Savior Himself only began His public activity after thirty years of complete privacy; not that He, in whom the fullness of Divinity resides, needed a process of maturing: but He chose to give us an example of the rhythm which God has imposed on human life.

Notwithstanding all our zeal, then, we must observe the obligation of patience even as workers in the vineyard of the Lord. With careful discretion we must try to perceive the striking of God's own hour for our work to start in His vineyard rather than insist, in a spirit of natural enthusiasm and impatience, on determining it by ourselves. Suppose we are animated by a glowing zeal: if, at the same time, we have patience, we may be infallibly sure that we no longer live by our nature but by a supernatural principle of life.

To be sure, we are not in all circumstances obliged to make the time of our action dependent on the degree of receptivity we may suppose to exist in the souls we deal with. There are cases when, with St. Paul, we must set forth the truth opportune, importune ("in season, out of season"). Yet, even then, we are not relieved of the duty of patience; for St. Paul says further: "Reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine" (2 Tim. 4:2).

Still more is patience our duty in regard to the blossoming of the seed which we are allowed to sow in the Lord's vineyard. As Pascal wrote, "Christ will us to fight with Him, not to conquer with Him." We must be humble enough to renounce any pretension to determine ourselves the time of the harvest. While doing everything in our power to hasten the extension of the kingdom of God for which we are working, we must let God alone decide when He shall grant it.

Even in cases when our business concerns some object eminently pleasing to God, which indeed we ought to pursue with consuming zeal, we must not cease saying, "Not as I will but as Thou wilt." At the start of his activity. St. Dominic lived for four [332] years among the Albigensian heretics without converting a single one of them. Yet, he became neither impatient nor discouraged; he did not give up his effort. By the end of his life, he and his sons had converted sixty thousand people. It is in this higher sphere that the second dimension of patience—the aspect of perseverance and indefatigable zeal—reveals its full importance.

Holy patience frees zeal from impatience

Once more, we encounter here the fact, repeatedly stressed in the foregoing pages, of an organic mutual union on the supernatural plane between aspects apparently antithetic. The nearer we draw to God, the more we see develop in ourselves a coincidentia oppositorum—a reconciliation between two equally valid demands which seem to imply an opposition or at least a tension.

It is only on a basis derived from Christ that we can achieve an accord between these two attitudes: hunger and thirst after justice and holy patience. In the natural framework, zeal appears inseparable from impatience.

But the saints accomplish the miracle: on the one hand, they say with the Apostle of the Gentiles, "The love of Christ presseth us," and live up to the message of Christ, "I am come to cast fire on the earth. And what will I, but that it be kindled?" (Luke 12:49); on the other hand, they await in holy patience and inward peace the time when God shall choose to manifest the fruits of their labors.

What holy patience expresses is a living recognition of the truth that the Lord God alone can bring forth the fruit; that, even in this highest sphere, man—with whatever blessings of grace—can do no more than disseminate the seed he has received from God, thus establishing the conditions for the operation of grace in his fellow man's soul. As St. Paul put it: "I have planted, Apollo watered: but God gave the increase" (1 Cor. 3:6).

[333] Holy patience is an ultimate act of surrender to God

Holy patience, seen from another angle, embodies an ultimate act of our surrender to God, and therefore a status of consummate self-possession. For only in the measure that we have surrendered our inmost being to God do we possess ourselves. He who has holy patience has accomplished the process of dying unto himself, and entered the peace of Christ which "surpasseth all understanding." "In your patience you shall possess your souls" (Luke 21:19).

In holy patience, we become children of Him who with inconceivable longanimity "maketh his sun to rise upon the good and bad and raineth upon the just and the unjust" (Matt. 5:45) and who does not weed out the cockle but sorts the chaff from the wheat at the harvest only.

In this sense, holy patience may be described as a sister of wisdom and of contemplation. As these virtues cause us to consider and appreciate everything in a perspective centered on God, thus evoking to the full the beauty and depth of all things, so also in the attitude of patience we emphatically let God act, thus allowing all things to unfold from above—as proceeding from their Origin—and by so experiencing their operation again render to God what is God's.

Holy patience is the fruit of faith, hope, and charity

Holy patience is a fruit of faith, hope and charity. Faith teaches us that God the universal Lord is also the Lord of Time; that He alone appoints the proper hour to everything; that we must place the success of all endeavors, including such as are eminently pleasing to Him, in His hands; that we must believe in the possibility of success though no pledge of it be visible to the human eye; and that consequently we must labor for the kingdom of God whatever the odds seem to be.

[334] Hope keeps us from getting discouraged in spite of all failures and all delays in achieving success and expects "against hope" everything from the goodness of Him "with whom nothing is impossible." Charity impels us to love God and His holy will above everything, and prevents us from expostulating with Him or renouncing our work in His vineyard on account of any defeat sustained. Particularly is patience an offspring of charity insofar as it is assimilable to constancy and perseverance—an offspring of the charity, that is, which in St. Paul's words "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" (1 Cor. 13:7).

The fruits of holy patience, finally, are meekness and that inner peace of Christ "which the world cannot give." Patience, then, is closely related to the very flower and perfume of Christian life.

Holy patience acknowledges man's creaturely status.

It constitutes one of the basic traits that distinguish a true Christian in statu viae, in the sense even that it connotes in a twofold fashion as specific reference to the character of earthly existence as a status viae—a journey destined to lead us to our ultimate goal. First, it expresses our assent to our creaturely and finite condition, and more particularly, our response to the significance of time as an aspect of the divine plan of creation, as an essential constituent of the status viae, the world of "that which passes" in contradistinction to eternity. Second, patience represents a basic condition for winning through to our eternal salvation, since it implies a capacity for waiting without despairing of our effort for the kingdom of God, an attitude of perseverance in the midst of all obstacles and all sufferings, an intrepid hope for victory, and a humble but sustained preparation for eternity.

Not only is patience an indispensable virtue; beyond that, it discloses a formal apprehension of the basic condition of status viae [335] and of the relation between terrestrial life and eternal life. Thus are the mysterious words of Our Lord on patience related to these others: "He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved" (Matt. 24:13).

He alone who possesses patience—encompassed by disappointments, worn down by defeats, painfully aware of the narrowness of the road to salvation—can yet give proof of the constancy demanded by God, and hold on to the one thing necessary with a devotion not only unflagging but ever increasing. In him alone can the hunger and thirst after justice unquenchable on earth—which is Christ Himself—and the undying fire that the Lord came down to kindle, burn throughout his entire life. Only the patient man, who lives by Christ, can persevere unto the end: "In your patience you shall possess your souls" (Luke 21:19).


Source: Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2001), 325–335.

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