The Passion of Patience

Concept of patience. A row of burnt matches, from left to right, from almost a whole match to a completely burnt match to the dust.

the passion of patience
The passion of patience

It’s a peculiar phrase: “the passion of patience.” Almost oxymoronic- in its combining the vigor of the heft-filled word passion with the passivity neutrality of patience, it was coined by Venerable Madeleine Debrel. A former atheist turned Catholic apologist who lived and died during the last century. Her poem The Passion of Patience begins with this searing line:

The patiences, these little pieces of passion, whose job is to kill us slowly for your glory, to kill us without our glory…

Debrel’s words apply a wholly different twist to that seemingly inert noun patience, don’t they? Especially during these fear-filled days which are now stretching into months. Perhaps, the more we dwell on the meaning of it, we can understand the poet’s phrase, the “passion of patience” as crucible. Maybe even gain new wisdom about ourselves and our world.

I have come to understand that patience is a critical virtue,

perhaps the most critical- therefore the one easiest to overlook, dismiss and trivialize. We Christians are taught that humility is the foremost of all graces and know that undergirding humility lies patience; they are mutually dependent. And yet we are unceasingly reminded of how far short we fall of either of them.

This spiritual life is such a razor’s edge. On the one hand, our knowledge of the Gospel and the lives of the saints reveals that all spiritual progress is the work of grace. Yet we must do our part through prayer, fasting, alms. And we try to do just that.

Consequently, there are rare and pristine days when we can feel the progress and trust that we are on the road to perfection. But our ordinary days seem to be colored a wintry gray of mediocrity, where we travel through them listlessly, all too secure in our failures and weaknesses. Pulling them close, like a cloak.

And wonder: “Did the saints feel such despondence at their pathetic weaknesses?” As we ponder his or her martyrdom.

“Am I lying to myself or worse exhibiting pridefulness with that smile when I wanted to curse?” While we fantasize about the missionary killed by African terrorists:real martyrdom.

“Surely they were not so terribly distracted by dirty dishes, hard to please husbands, or a sudden misfortune as I?”

Baffled when we consider Our Lady’s mild response to the Son for whom she had been searching for three days.

They are endless, the manner and means with which we can deride ourselves.

The methods by which we rob ourselves of the joy that Christ yearns to envelop us with. Then, providentially, we come across one who expresses all of these dark thoughts and more. This woman from the last century who reminds us of the potential sacredness of that forced smile and the holiness implicit in our banal, boring patiences.

Here is Debrel’s entire poem, translated from the original French:

The patiences, these little pieces of passion, whose job is to kill us slowly for your glory, to kill us without our glory.

From the morning they come to meet us:

These are our nerves too vibrating or too soft; 
it is the bus that goes full, 
the milk that runs away, 
the chimney sweepers coming, 
the children who confuse everything; 
they are the guests whom our husband brings, 
and this friend who does not come; it’s the phone that breaks loose, 
those we love who do not love each other anymore; 
it is the desire to be silent and the duty to speak; 
it is the desire to speak and the need to keep quiet; 
it’s wanting to go out when you’re locked up 
and stay at home when you have to go out; 
it is the husband whom we would like to support 
and who becomes the most fragile of children; 
and the nervous desire of all that is not ours.

Thus come our patiences in tight ranks or in single file and they always forget to tell us that they are the martyrdom that was prepared for us.

And we let them pass with contempt, waiting to give our lives an opportunity that is worth it.