By Endurance We Gain Our Lives

You will be  hated by all on account of my name. And not a hair from your head will be lost! You will gain possession of your lives by your endurance.

Luke 21:17-19

The computer that I use at work is now several years old. In recent months it has become quite slow, and so I must wait a few minutes for it to boot up in the morning and must endure its slower pace in loading one program after another. I am amazed at how impatient I am with it. I have become used to almost instantaneous response when I press a key on the keyboard or tap an icon on my phone. Now, as my desktop computer moves so much more slowly, I experience not only impatience but actual agitation at having to wait a few extra minutes to continue my work.

The degree of my reaction to having to wait is a real reminder to me of the gap between the working and way of spirit in me and my vital physical and emotional reactions. Our Fundamental Principles remind us that:

Over the course of your lifetime,
your loving Father
will gradually convert you to Himself,
if you let Him.

Yet, because this process, as all life processes, is gradual we are told to: ”Be patient, therefore, with yourself and with God.” Patience, however, does not come readily to the ever present infant within us. As a person in his later years, I am not so different sitting before my slow computer from the small boy who would stare at the clock on a boring summer afternoon waiting for time for supper to arrive.

Our difficulty with patience is a measure of the distance between the impulses and ambitions of the vital and functional dimensions of our personality and the aspirations and inspirations of our soul and spirit, our transcendent dimension. That is, our lack of patience is a measure of our lack of personal human and spiritual integration. Lately I have discovered a very bad developing habit. If I have my smartphone in my pocket and I am engaged in a meeting or other activity that is moving too slowly for me, I have an irresistible urge to take out my phone and check my messages. Technology is playing into my innate desire for immediate gratification. So, if I am not being gratified immediately, I compulsively turn to something that will give me what I crave.

One of the most difficult human and humane capacities we learn in life is the ability to delay gratification. Recent research shows that a person’s ability to delay gratification is one of the most reliable predictors of one’s capacity for study and learning. For our deeper potencies to be realized, we need to learn to quiet the immediate demands of our infra-conscious desires.

Similarly, the ambitions that fuel our lives from our functional dimension seek a sense of control and management over our lives. It is very difficult for us, from the perspective of ego, to feel impotent. That’s why I experience frustration, bordering on rage, as I sit before my computer screen and have to wait for the next program to load. Much of our conscious life is dominated by the illusion that we have much more control over our lives than we actually do. The reason that there is such a gap between our ways and God’s ways, between our thoughts and God’s thoughts is that our thoughts and ways are largely based on the illusions of our impulses and ambitions.

To learn the ways of God, or, as William Blake puts it, to learn “to bear the beams of love” requires that we learn to suffer our own lives as they truly are. While the ego works, the soul suffers. We distract ourselves from our souls’ experience of life by the gratifications we seek and the ambitions we pursue. Yet God converts us to Himself gradually and over the course of our lifetime. My impatience before the computer screen, or as I wait for other persons to speak or show themselves at their own pace, is born of my inability to bear my own life and experience it as it is. Who am I and where am I as I wait for my computer to boot up? My impatient reaction, my upset verging on anger, is but my own refusal to live with my own anxiety, or boredom, or loneliness, or sadness. At the functional level, I am seeking the relief that comes with finishing the tasks I have lined up for the day, as if there would be no more tasks when those were completed.

Much of the gratification we seek from our own impulses toward pleasure and our ambitions to manage and control is merely relief from what feels like the burden of our own existence, of what we suffer merely by being alive. To grow in patience and endurance is to stretch our egos so that they have more capacity to suffer our lives while waiting “in joyful hope” for the Lord’s coming. It is to give up our incessant search for “relief” from our own lives and experience in favor of a deepening appreciation for our lives and for what we are going through.

One of the mistaken notions we have due to the overly-functional emphasis of our culture is that being present to and suffering the experience of our own life is somehow opposed to generativity and action in the world. We tend to mistake the compulsive activity of our unconscious search for relief as our true contribution to the world. Yet much of that restless activity is ultimately meaningless and fruitless. At its depth, our life is a call. It is by being attentive to that life, by living, that is suffering, it fully, that we act in accordance with our call. It is in this way that we act in the world not to find relief by distracting ourselves from our lives but rather to offer generously the gift we have received to the world as a gift. As Jan van Ruusbroec teaches (The Spiritual Espousals, I,ii,A), Jesus’ entire life is formed by patient endurance of his suffering, his own mental, emotional, and physical suffering as well as the suffering of those whom he loves. HIs great act of love is his life, suffered and given over for all. As the Fundamental Principles tell us:

Gradually,
you will realize
that the cost of discipleship
is your very life . . . .

One of the most discouraging life experiences that I know is to find myself overly busy with things while experiencing at a deeper level that I am not doing the work that is mine to do. The more we are compulsively driven to seek relief from the suffering of our own being, the greater the chance that we are, for all our activity, wasting our time. Yesterday, before getting to the task that was truly calling for my attention, I decided to hurriedly write a series of emails to others to set up appointments. The result of that hurry and push was that I made several mistakes, only confusing others more than helping them. In trying to exceed my limits, I merely created more work as well as confusion. Many times suffering our limits and what we are not able to do serves the world more than acting merely to relieve ourselves of that suffering. It is only from our true place that we can know the service to which God is uniquely calling us.

It takes true faith, hope, and love to live in patience. And, as Luke has Jesus tell us,  it takes patience to gain possession of our lives. Our lives are always a mystery to us. We can only come to possess those lives by waiting on God’s revelation of them, which comes very gradually through all that we go through in life. Just as we want the computer to boot up immediately or the hands of the clock to move more quickly, we would like a shortcut to our goal. We would like to know and possess our lives without experiencing and suffering them.

As Ronald Rolheiser points out, life has its own rhythm. We come to learn that rhythm in patient endurance, by staying with and suffering through the life that is given us — both in what we would choose and also in what we would rather refuse. It is by endurance that we gain possession of our lives.

And so we live with a lot of expressed and unexpressed impatience with God. Atheists, it would seem, at a certain point just give up on playing the game and more or less say the words: “I’ve seen enough; I’ve waited enough; and it’s not enough! I will no longer wait for God!” But if atheism is just another way of saying, “I will no longer wait for God,” then the opposite is also true; faith is just another way of saying, “I will wait for God.” If atheism is impatience, faith is patience.

Why the need for such great patience? Does God want to test us? Does God want see if we indeed have a faith that is worthy of a great reward? No. God has no need to play such a game, and neither do we. It’s not that God wants to test our patience. The need for patience arises out of the rhythms innate within life itself and within love itself. They need to unfold, as do flowers and pregnancies, according to their own good time. They cannot be rushed, no matter how great our impatience or how great our discomfort.

Ronald Rolheiser, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, pp. 50-51

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