For those of us with a “Type A” personality, keeping anger and impatience under wraps poses a continual challenge. The season of Lent, though, gives us a chance to turn things around. We A’s can attempt to replace wrath, one of the seven deadly sins, with its counterpart, the cardinal virtue of patience. And if we pay attention and remain open, opportunities to do so present themselves not just during this season but also throughout the year. The trick is to recognize these moments when they come along.
Patience is the will to “bear provocation with calmness and self-control.” An opportunity to do just that arose for me last Christmas Eve. I was attending Mass at an out-of-town parish. Seated behind me was an attractive, well-dressed young woman with a lovely singing voice. Unexpectedly she broke into loud, uncontrollable laughter. This created a stir in the congregation, particularly among those in the rear of the church where she sat (one row behind me). Then silence. Later on, she began shouting and swinging her arms. I felt anger welling up within me at these interruptions and outbursts during the liturgy. How disrespectful, I thought. Finally, during Communion, she leapt from her pew and ran up an aisle and onto the altar platform before she could be subdued and assisted.
For days I could not stop thinking about her, replaying in my mind’s eye the actions and harsh words of some congregants toward her. Clearly she was not a well woman. (I later learned she was off her medications, and her mother had brought her to church but did not stay with her.) While some individuals were shushing her (and worse), I prayed for this obviously tortured soul and also for tolerance and patience, the kind of patience the good Lord shows to us.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul exhorts them to give up “getting angry, being bad-tempered” and instead to “be clothed in sincere compassion…gentleness and patience.” “Bear with one another,” he insists (3:8, 12-13). And Thomas à Kempis, in The Imitation of Christ, advises: “Be patient, my soul; await the fulfillment of God’s promise, and you shall enjoy the abundance of His goodness in Heaven.” I have no doubt that God’s promise and God’s patience extend in full measure to that young woman as much as to anyone else.
Most of us need help to develop greater patience. Fortunately, there are many persons to whom we can turn and from whom we can learn and grow, like those who embody the virtue. A great Old Testament example is Job—a good and upright man tested by suffering and misfortune, yet unwavering in his faith. We can also enlist the intercession of St. Monica, a model of patience, who for years prayed quietly for the conversion of her dissolute son, Augustine. It is a truism that good things come to those who wait.
We also should not forget those persons, living or deceased, who are unique to each of us: parents, teachers, mentors, siblings and others who have demonstrated a patient spirit throughout their lives. I think of people who taught by example the importance of retaining calm and a sense of equanimity amid times of stress.
Still, in today’s busy, fast-paced world, impatience abounds. (Is the A population taking over? I wonder.) We simply cannot wait. We need a quick solution. As a result we see more and more road rage and crowd conflict. In New York last Black Friday, a clerk about to open a store was stampeded to death by hordes of early-morning bargain hunters who had waited for hours in the parking lot. So fixated were they on getting in that they stepped on or over the young man and never looked back.
As Christians, we are called to be tolerant and understanding. Jesus commands us to love one another, to be in harmony with one another. And although the pursuit of virtue is a lifetime endeavor, we have the power of the Spirit at our disposal—through the sacraments, prayer, Scripture reading and meditation. If these are not our daily companions, we tread a rocky path.
Thank God we have time this Lent to grow in patience. Why not use it?