“I want patience and I want it now,” or so the joke goes.
But remember, the purpose of Advent is to wait. Did you ever stay awake on Christmas eve as a child and sneak into a hiding place in order to see the Christmas tree being decorated? I surely did. I was impatient. We kids also had big felt stockings hung on each of our doors and I remember during the night trying to keep an eye open to see Santa or the Good Fairy or at least someone putting the prizes into it.
Did I keep my eyes open all night? No. I woke in the morning to find a bulging stocking, mysteriously full, having arrived by magic alone. So, I had gone to sleep instead of patiently spying. Patience is not often a virtue of the young.
Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, has a poem on patience that speaks to this first Advent Sunday. (Please see the footnote for help in understanding.*)
Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, patience is! Patience who asks,
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these and, these away,
No-where. Natural heart’s-ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves;
it kills To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—he is patient. Patience fills
his crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.*
Our most beloved plans and purposes come often to wreckage, just like ancient buildings. Patience resembles beautiful ivy, Hopkins says, gradually spreading its way over the rubble, making it a picture of quiet composure. The phrase, “Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves,” doesn’t just remind us of how ivy looks, it bathes us in the luxury, the peace and the relief of such a sight. Hopkins portrays patience also as “delicious kindness,” a honey that fills the combs of our lives. A gift to us.
God’s kindness provides us with comfort and also time to prepare—an allowance of days, weeks, years, and even a lifetime—to get ready, to desire, and gradually, along the way, to receive. With patience. Even though infants demand their every wish be granted right now, our adult humanity is simply too deep to get an instant fill-up.
If there were nothing worth waiting for, then patience would be silly. The birth of Christ into this world and into our hearts is well worth the wait. We know that his birth has happened already—but also, in a surprising way, it has not happened at all. We are still mean to our neighbors. We still hide truth from those who love us. We envy and lust after what is not ours., and there is horrendous evil all around us in this twenty-first century.
We need the birth of Jesus into our hearts, into the world.
We need Advent patience.
Parts of this poem may be difficult to understand immediately, so I want to be crass and suggest its meaning in prose:
1) Patience is difficult because usually it grows only in adversity.
2) Yet, like ivy it gradually covers with quiet beauty the failures of our lives. (The “purple eyes” are berries.)
3) Our hearts are like stones chafing on each other, bruising themselves dearer (the word “dearer” is used in England to mean “at greater cost.”) Yet even so, we ask God to bend our defiant wills to him.
4) Hopkins ends with a comparison of God to the bees who—patiently—fill up honeycombs.
You are invited to email a note to the
author of this reflection:
Fr. John Foley, SJ