Father Richard G. Cipolla
From the Epistle, Paul to the Colossians: Brethren: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.
The last in St. Paul’s list in today’s epistle, describing what the Christian should take on, become, is patience. It may be last but it is not least. Patience can be trivialized. Someone is doing a job that requires time and meticulousness. This needs patience, in the sense that things have to go slowly and what is needed is attention to detail and the time it takes to make that detail perfect. But St Paul is not talking about that kind of patience. He is talking about that patience whose etymology comes from the Latin verb, patior, whose first meaning is to suffer.
The practice of patience is second only to the practice of love, and what joins these two is suffering. Oh, you say, not another sermon on drawing closer to the Cross, the necessity of suffering in the Christian life, as an imitation of Christ. Yes and No. Christ does not talk about patience per se. He talks about mercy and love in the context of the human condition of sin and death, and that both mercy and love demand suffering in some form. The Good Samaritan had to have the patience to do what he did. It took time, time that he may not have had. It took physical labor to pick up the beaten up man and put him on his horse and take him to the inn. It took patience for Joseph to take Mary as his wife and to live that singular role until his death. Now we are getting closer to the heart of patience. For the deepest part of patience is an acceptance of things that causes suffering that cannot be explained. This is very different from having the patience to thread a needle or the patience to explain something to someone who seems unable to grasp what is being said, or the patience to wait with a serene countenance in the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Christian understanding of patience often is seen in acts of heroism. We associate heroism with acts of bravery that are wonderful but obvious in their greatness. The hero deliberately forgets himself, even his life, to perform an act that is brave and always involves self-forgetting. For me the first modern hero is Aeneas, the founder of Rome. He is modern in that he succumbs to all sorts of temptations that put him off course. He becomes impatient. He fears, he cries, he becomes a killing machine, all to found Rome. And Virgil says: Tantae molis erat romanam condere gentem. Molis is untranslatable but a good approximation is : It was such a heavy task to found the Roman race. And throughout, despite his forgetfulness of his mission, he knows that what he is involved in is a high calling that goes way beyond himself.
The saints are those who also forget themselves but who understand that their patience is the patience of Christ, the patience of Christ on the Cross, and the saints have always known that their patience, whatever their historical circumstances, is always an imitatio Christi, an imitation of Christ, the imitation of the Lord’s patience with everyone he encounters. Ah, you say, he was not very patient with the Pharisees and the Scribes, lashing out at them. You hypocrites, you whited sepulchers! Ah, we say, you see, in the end he is like us. He has so much patience and then bam!, he explodes at the hypocrisy and the false religiosity of these religious people. No. Wrong. Because he suffers for them, he dies for them on the Cross, for them. Those cries of anguish against the hypocrisy of those who call themselves religious, those are the cries of the man who knows the terrible darkness that lurks in the heart of man and its denial of the reality of God. Those cries are joined to his cry on the Cross: My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
But you see, now we approach with fear and trembling the heart of patience that is suffering. We approach that great contradiction with which St Paul grapples, ostensibly the tension between the Law and the Gospel between the Law and Freedom, that ultimately resolves itself in the patience of suffering. Resolves is the wrong word, for the resolution transcends the Law in an absolute way and brings us to the unknowable heart of God. How can one bear the pious twaddle that is going on in Rome at this time about too many Catholics worrying too much about the Ten Commandments? Not only have they forgotten our Lord’s words that he has come to fulfill the Law, they have placed themselves in a bad YouTube video imitating, badly, the Beatles’ singing: All you need is love Love is all you need. Boring then, boring now. Bad music then, bad theology now.
They would never dare confront that most powerful and horrible story in the Old Testament of the sacrifice of Isaac. There is no better exegesis of this than that of the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard. What we have in that story, with its unforgettable details, the father and son walking up the mountain side by side, but father where is the lamb for the sacrifice, the silence of the father, the tying up of the son on the stone altar, the knife raised. This is a moment when the Law in the deepest sense is suspended and we enter into the abyss of the heart of God. What Abraham is about to do is against morality, it is immoral to kill one’s own son, but this is an act of faith that transcends even morality as Abraham enters into the blinding patience of God. Kierkegaard calls Abraham a knight of faith. And so he is. You say, but it has a happy ending. Abraham’s hand is stayed by an angel. It is all a test. Whew, That was close. But God did not stay the hand of the angel of death in the crucifixion of his Son. There is the shattering of our bourgeois religiosity that confuses patience with noncommittal. You and I do not dare to enter this awesome place. Because we have no patience in the deepest sense. We become impatient with the imperfections around us, with what we see as preventing us from being ourselves, for doing something meaningful for myself, settling for mediocrity, refusing to climb the mountain with the knife. And who can blame us? Certainly not those who preach don’t worry God loves you and there’s nothing else to say and who blot out the hard sayings in the gospel of the Son of God. And who can blame us for refusing to walk up that mountain with the knife in hand?
It is true in a real sense that the martyrs of the Church from Stephen to Ignatius of Antioch to the Japanese martyrs to Edmund Campion and the English martyrs to Isaac Jogues and the martyrs in upstate New York and for those who die for Christ this very day: that these understand the walk up the mountain and the knife. And most strikingly the Blessed Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross was pierced with the reality of the walk up the mountain. But in saying this, we breathe a sigh of relief. The martyrs have nothing to do with my life really. That is not my calling, thanks be to God. These people are just a list in the Roman Canon: Linus Cletus, Sixtus, Agatha, Cecilia, Perpetua, Felicity. Awesome. But they should have everything to do with us.
Let me give you some examples of knights of faith that perhaps are closer to home and will perhaps wake you us up out of our selfish stupor. A young man who has same sex attraction who wants in his deepest heart to become a priest. He struggles mightily with this thorn in the flesh. He fails, he goes to Confession, he receives grace and tries to walk up the mountain as best he can. He stumbles over and over again, but he understands that the only path he can take is up the mountain and it will never lead to the priesthood that he so deeply desires. An older woman, a Catholic, married a divorced man, they had a child, she takes him to Mass every Sunday and never receives Holy Communion, never complains, patient with her condition, the son receives his first Holy Communion, she stays in the pew, and patiently and silently suffers, not because of the Law of the Church, but because she understands the path up the mountain, the path that she must take. A young woman, happy marriage, pregnant, over two months , goes to her doctor for a routine examination. The news: the baby has severe abnormalities that will nevertheless bring it to term and that will allow the baby to live only a few hours after birth.
The great temptation is to turn away from patience, to refuse to walk up the mountain, so many ways today to get out of this and never confront the awesome patience of God. Advice. Too much to ask of any normal woman. And God’s mercy is invoked by priests. Don’t worry about Law. But she still opts for patience. And the veil falls over her and her child, the veil of the infinite patience of God that comes from the infinite suffering of the God who sacrificed his only begotten Son for the likes of you and me. That is the veil of infinite love. These people are not made up. They are real. And they are patient.