a reflection

Þere parfit treuthe and pouere herte is and pacience of tonge, Þere is charitee.

Piers Plowman

“Patience” is the title of the essay about Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life that I published earlier this year, just as everything was beginning to go all lopsided.

Patience (patientia) is related to passion (passio). Both connote suffering and the endurance of suffering; the acceptance with dignity of what cannot, and sometimes should not, be avoided; the willingness to wait until this present darkness passes. Jesus bore his passion with patience; those who endure to the end, who are likewise patient in their suffering, will be saved.

I try to cultivate patience because I am commanded to do so. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (Romans 12:12), says St. Paul, who also begs me “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–2). And does not the book of Proverbs (15:18) teach me that “Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention”?

I try to cultivate patience because I am by nature — as my family will quickly and perhaps eagerly tell you — extremely impatient. In public life I am easily frustrated by what I believe to be intellectual error, especially if I think that error stems from a lack of charity. Uncharity makes us all stupid, and my tendency to be uncharitable to the uncharitable is one of my worst faults. Reflecting on that sober fact led me, some years ago, to make a case for the canonization of Jonathan Swift.

I try to cultivate patience especially along three intersecting axes: the ecclesial, the political, and the technological. I am especially interested in the ways that our dominant communications technologies mediate both political life and religious life, and entangle those with each other. (Anyone who has lived through the Trump Era will not need me to explain what I mean.) Especially our social media tend to make us madly impatient with disagreement and difference and to try to quash dissent through words and actions alike. We might demand that everyone be with us wholly or against us wholly; we might long for a King who will rout our enemies and bring about perfect unity.

But anyone pursuing such practices has succumbed to the temptation to immanentize the eschaton. And the only remedy for that particular temptation is to practice patience. And you will only do that if you understand the real import — which is political as well as spiritual — of the parable of the wheat and the weeds, about which I wrote, some years ago, here. In the end, we are told, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” but to live now, to live in “the time being,” is to live, with as much patience as we can manage, in the plural world. That is why I have written a good deal recently about plurality:

But any attempt to live patiently in plurality meets with profound resistance from the gods of our age, who want us to live wholly and reactively in the present, who teach us fear and loathing of the past, what I call palaiphobia. We can begin to overcome that, begin to escape the direhose, first by understanding that our current social hatreds are driven by fundamentally religious impulses.

And then, equipped with that understanding, we can practice listening to the voices of the past; attending to the apparently irrelevant; cultivating handmind; learning to be idiots. And on basis of all that, we can then, perhaps, make a bet on mutuality.

A last word: For the past couple of years I have become more and more convinced that there are vital resources for those of us who want to cultivate patience, who want to be peaceable towards others, who are drawn towards technologies that help us to be more peaceable and patient, in the philosophical tradition of Daoism. (As opposed to Daoism as a religion, in which I am not interested. I follow Jesus.) That’s why I published this essay, the writing of which, as I recently said to a friend, felt like “opening a door for myself — but I still don’t know what lies on the other side of that door.”

Because I want to pursue this new direction, I expect 2021 to be a quieter year for me. I want to write as much as ever, but I think patience now requires me to consider and reflect more while posting and publishing less. Of course, there’s a part of me that hopes that a time of silence will in the long run yield essays and books. But one of my goals for the next year is to make that part of me less vocal, less dominant.