I had a dream last week about my grandmother, Effie Williams. I have a lot of fond memories of Grandma Effie. She passed away more than 34 years ago. She was smart, tough, resilient, industrious, organized, and patient.
Grandma Effie was not the type of person to hand out compliments or say, “I love you,” but I knew she loved me because of all the acts of service she so willingly and generously performed for me.
Last week was the first time Grandma Effie ever appeared in one of my dreams. The reason for that may be that I rarely had dreams until about a year and a half ago. That was when I had surgery on my jaw to extend it forward to open the air passageway in my throat so I could breathe freely while I sleep. The surgery was to correct my severe obstructive sleep apnea that was progressively getting worse.
In my dream, I was in the bathroom of Grandma’s house and I had a large bottle of shampoo in my hand. At one point, I spilled the shampoo all over the place. I was frantic and afraid that Grandma would be upset if she saw what I did.
When I finally finished cleaning up the shampoo, I turned around and saw Grandma standing in the doorway of the bathroom. She had a kind look on her face and was patiently waiting for me to finish cleaning up, so she could come into the bathroom and put some things away. When I saw her, my first thought was, “How long has she been standing there?” My second thought was, “Wow, she’s so patient. She didn’t say a word.”
Patience is not one of the qualities that I inherited from my grandmother. The two virtues that I struggle with the most are humility and patience. That bothers me because there’s a saying that the road to Heaven is paved with humility and patience.
Most devout Catholics would agree that humility ranks high among the virtues that are required to make it into Heaven. But how is it that patience is in the number two slot of importance among the virtues that are necessary to get into Heaven?
There’s a clue to the answer to the question I just asked. The clue can be found in a statement that was made by St. Cyprian, who was the Bishop of Carthage from 249 until he was martyred in 258. The statement that has been attributed to him is, “For what can enrich us with greater merit in this life and greater glory in the next, than the patient endurance of sufferings?”
The word “patience” is derived from the Latin terms patientia, which means “endurance” and patiens, which means “suffering.” The best definition that I’ve seen of the word “patience” came from Fr. John A. Hardon (1914–2000), a Jesuit priest, theologian, and author of more than 40 books on the Catholic faith. According to Fr. Hardon, patience is “the willing endurance of suffering.”
If you were to ask anyone who has lived or worked with me if I am a patient man, the answer would be quick and certain: “No!” My patience is most lacking when I’m working because once I decide on what needs to be done to complete a project, I don’t like anyone to interrupt me or get in my way of completing the project. I react quickly to stop people from interfering with my work. I intentionally used the word “react” because my behavior is automatic. There is no thought that precedes my behavior. The behavior is hard-wired and automatic.
A simple question about why I’m doing something or a comment or opinion about what I should be doing is an unwanted interruption of my work. I have no time for questions or opinions because I’ve already decided what needs to be done and how it’s going to get done, and any interruption is an obstacle to completing what I have set out to do.
Because of my tendency to react negatively to interruptions, I do my best to remember to consciously tell myself that I need to be willing to stop and patiently answer questions and listen to comments and opinions. I also tell myself that I have to be willing to set aside the time to have whatever discussion is necessary before I get back to work.
I also have to be mindful of the fact that by exercising kindness and patience toward others, there may be a delay in my work, but I will still be able to get my project done in a timely manner.
I have to admit that from a business and productivity standpoint my reactive behavior in work-related situations benefits me because there are a lot of lazy people in the world who would prefer to simply discuss matters and waste time rather than actually dig in and do the hard work that is necessary to get a project completed.
Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s God’s will that I need to do my best to patiently react and respond to people who are working with me or for me. But I’ve also determined that there has to be a limit to my patience. After doing my best to exercise patience with others while I’m working, there are occasions when I have to tell them, “You need to stop talking and asking questions. It’s throwing off my ability to think and focus. We need to get this project done, so no more talking unless it’s an emergency.”
Being patient with other people when there’s work to be done is not easy for me. The reason it’s not easy is that patience is a form of suffering and we avoid suffering any time we can.
When we force ourselves to be patient, we force ourselves to suffer. Why do we suffer when we practice the virtue of patience? Because we voluntarily give up the opportunity to do and get what we want.
For the most part, we Americans are used to doing and getting what we want.
The technological advances that have taken place over the past 100 years have ushered in an unprecedented level of abundance, growth, and comfort. Unfortunately, those same technological advances have given us the ability to get what we want more often than not and to exercise a significant level of control over our lives. As a result, it’s easier than it has ever been to avoid suffering.
When we fail to practice the virtue of patience, we fail to accept the suffering that God has allowed to interfere with our lives. He allows suffering to interfere with our lives for good reasons, one of which is to teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves.
As we approach Holy Week and the anniversary of the crucifixion and death of our Savior, keep in mind that our Lord patiently endured the suffering that was thrust upon Him by his enemies. He did not fight back. He did not run and hide. He did not complain. He simply accepted His Father’s will with patience and resignation, which led to an unimaginable degree of suffering.
Mother Angelica had this to say about suffering:
From the time of Adam and Eve, man has tried to escape suffering in any form. It is a mystery to all except the holy ones of God. The Prophets saw it as a call from God to repent. The Apostles saw it as “a happy privilege” to imitate Jesus. Pagans saw it as foolishness. Men of today see it as an evil and try to avoid it, but it follows them wherever they go.
If you want to learn how to practice patience, you must first learn how to willingly embrace and endure suffering. That’s a hard truth to swallow, and it’s a hard truth to actually put into practice.
The road to Heaven is paved with humility and suffering.