The Virtue of Waiting

In his 1941 sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis invited his listeners to consider “the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels.” Lewis’s sermon is a remarkable meditation on desire, beauty, and the Christian life, and in it he sets out to convince his audience “that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.”

“We are half-hearted creatures,” Lewis famously argues, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Throughout the sermon, Lewis strains his formidable rhetorical gifts to convey some sense of the glory that awaits the people of God. Then, just as Lewis’s efforts crest, he opens his closing paragraph with the following observation: “Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.”

Most of us will immediately intuit all of what is entailed by Lewis’s reminder to his listeners that tomorrow is a Monday morning. Monday morning, perhaps especially an Easter Monday like the one that just passed, is a reminder that we still live as those who are on the way. Our journey is incomplete, and we must go on living not only by faith and love but also by hope. If Sunday gives us a taste of the extraordinary glory that is the inheritance of the saints, Monday tends to plunge us back into the ordinary, the tedious, the “not yet.”

It is, in short, a reminder that we must wait.

Waiting is an inescapable part of the Christian life. By virtue of our status as those who long for the return of our king, Christians find themselves waiting with expectant hearts. We live in the gap between the promise of God and the fullness of its fulfillment, between the inauguration of God’s kingdom and its consummation. Waiting characterizes our experience and it calls forth the attendant virtues of patience and hope, but waiting can be especially challenging for people who have been marked by the habit instant gratification.

The psalms are especially insistent on the importance of waiting, so much so that we might rightly speak of waiting as a spiritual discipline. “Wait for the Lord,” we are instructed, “be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14). We are encouraged to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Ps. 37:7). “I wait for the Lord,” the psalmist declares, “my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope,” and then with a simile that captures the ardent character of his waiting, “I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (130:5-6).

The prophet Isaiah also impresses upon his audience the centrality of waiting: “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him” (64:4). “Blessed are all who wait for him!” he exclaims (30:18).

It is evident, then, that waiting is not, as we are accustomed to think of it, merely an inconvenient and aggravating necessity. It is a positive disposition, a state of expectant dependence that characterizes the believer’s relationship with God. While we tend to think of waiting as an anxious or frustrating reality we must endure, one that makes us glance again and again at our clocks, the psalmist instructs us to pair our waiting with stillness. Although, of course, the Psalms also reminds us that it will sometimes be appropriate to cry out “How long, O Lord!”

Our lives, then, ought to be marked by hopeful and patient waiting, not only for the return of Christ in the future but also for the nearness of God’s presence now. God may disclose Himself to whomever He chooses, but the biblical evidence and the Christian tradition suggest to us that a still and patient heart is uniquely prepared to perceive the work and presence of God.

Unfortunately, up until recently, the structures and values of contemporary society, as well as the practices that shape our daily lives, have not been conducive to the cultivation of patience or inner stillness. We have at every turn chosen speed and efficiency and distraction, even when they have been inappropriate to and even antithetical to the fulfillment of the ends we ostensibly desired.

But, now—now we find ourselves waiting, indefinitely it seems, for some elusive return to a state we call normal. Curiously, we find ourselves waiting not for the future, but for the return of the past. Needless to say, the past cannot return. Moreover, we may find in this distended present an opportunity to “redeem the time,” as the Apostle Paul admonishes us to do (Eph. 5:6). The work of the 20th century French thinker and activist, Simone Weil, may offer us a clue as to how we might proceed.

In an essay reflecting on the nature of Christian education, Weil wrote, “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.” She believed this to be the case because she believed the “key to a Christian conception of studies” to be “the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”

In her view, one of the chief virtues of study had little to do with the specific subject of study, rather it arose from the effort applied and yielded fruit across the whole range of our experience, particularly in prayer.

“If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry,” Weil explained,

and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer. Moreover it may very likely be felt besides in some department of the intelligence in no way connected with mathematics. Perhaps he who made the unsuccessful effort will one day be able to grasp the beauty of a line of Racine more vividly on account of it. But it is certain that this effort will bear its fruit in prayer. There is no doubt whatever about that.”

In other words, according to Weil, one reason to study geometry had nothing to do with geometry: it was so we might, by our patient application to the geometry problem before us, gradually cultivate the capacity for attention, which we might then redeploy in other domains, most importantly in the spiritual domain of prayer. Weil understood that we do not become virtuous merely by wishing it so; we must seek out practices which will instill the habits that will gradually transform our character.

So, likewise, in the midst of days that may be unfolding at a tedious pace or in moments of frustration with a situation that shows no obvious signs of resolving, we may find an opportunity to cultivate a habit and a disposition that will bear fruit in conditions altogether unrelated from our present circumstances. After all, to be attentive in the the manner Weil believed essential to the life of prayer is not altogether distinct from the kind of patient waiting for God we have been discussing.

Chiefly, should we choose it, we may now have occasion to break ourselves of the habits of immediacy and instantaneity, which produce only a hurried and anxious way of being in the world. We may find, too, ample opportunities to practice the art of stilling our hearts and learning to wait. Perhaps the particular thing we find ourselves waiting for today will be trivial or superficial. Or perhaps it may seem silly to find some kind of spiritually significant labor in our decision to forestall the momentary relief of boredom and angst with a quick fix of digital media. Nonetheless, in such moments what we may really be achieving is a capacity to “be still before the Lord the Lord and wait patiently for him.”

Study Center Resources

Reminder: the final lecture in the Timely Virtues series, “Hope and the Future,” is available here. The lecture refers to a number of images, which may be viewed on the CSC blog while listening.

Beginning Wednesday May 6th, we will be offering a virtual reading group, which will work its way through Dante’s Divine Comedy beginning with the Inferno. The group will meet each week from noon to 1:00 p.m on Zoom. We will be using Robert and Jean Hollander’s translation. If you plan to join, it may be a good idea to order a copy soon.

Recommended Reading

— Historian and media scholar Jason Farman has made the last chapter of his book, Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, available online. From “Tactics for Waiting”:

“Waiting points to our desires and hopes for the future; and while that future may never arrive and our hopes may never be fulfilled, the act of reflecting on waiting teaches us about ourselves. The meaning of life isn’t deferred until that thing we hope for arrives; instead, in the moment of waiting, meaning is located in our ability to recognize the ways that such hopes define us.”

— Elizabeth Bruenig writes about “how the pandemic transformed the lives and ministry of eight Manhattan friars, and what their example can teach the rest of us”:

“For this particular community, that ministry has primarily entailed chaplaincy at local hospitals and nursing homes since the 1940s. On any given day, the brothers could expect to offer Mass at on-site chapels, anoint the sick, administer last rites to the dying and pray with patients and their families. Then they would return to their community, where they found peace, solidarity and spiritual sustenance in their brotherhood. But as the coronavirus spread, the friars realized their common life could be a source of danger.”

— From Justin Whitmel Earley’s “Spiritual Rhythms for Quarantine.” (Our friends at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville are co-hosting a webinar by Earley. You can read more about it here.):

“Suddenly, what has always been true is plainly apparent - we live in a dangerous world, and your house stands as a missional outpost of love amidst that danger. This is your moment to rise to that call. Everything you have ever known about household rhythms is now disrupted, which means this is an incredible opportunity to form new rhythms that guide you towards God’s power in a time of humanity’s powerlessness. That guide you towards courage in a cultural moment of fear. That guide you towards concentration and presence, in a blitz of information and alerts. That guide you towards self-sacrifice in a mood of self-preservation. And above all - that guide you towards a household gathered in love, rather than scattered in fear.”