The Nature of Waiting

Photo: Mohammed GH, Unsplash

”A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.”1 — Henri Nouwen

The Annunciation is a liminal moment, a threshold moment. In many of the paintings of the 14th century, we see the angel of God approaching the girl Mary in a sunlit, airy space that looks like it could have been designed by a group of Swedish architects. The angel pauses on the threshold at a reserved distance from Mary, who waits with an air of shy expectation.

It is a pause between times, the last of “Before the Common Era” and what will become known in most of the world as the Old Testament, and the Common Era’s New Testament—all of that in the future—but for us, looking back, the defining hinge of history, after which millions of people will set their moral compass to the true north of Jesus Christ.

The announcement itself, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, not only breaks the news that a certain thing will happen, but also why it will be so: “You shall conceive and bear a son,” because “He will be great . . . And he will be king over Israel for ever.”

This is a mixed message for Mary. She is to bear the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will fulfill the hopes of the nation. But she has no husband. Actually, she is betrothed to be married, but social norms and a conscience in good working order makes the how of conception beyond the possible. She is not thinking outside the physical means of intercourse; why should she? There were myths, stories of girls possessed by the gods, but these were pagan deities, capricious and rapacious, not at all the way of the God she had been taught to worship. She is “deeply troubled.”

The angel speaks of “overshadowing”. “The power of the Most High,” he says, by way of explanation. The girl has perhaps some inkling of what this might mean, but she hears the last part most clearly—the child will be the Son of God.

But there is more: her kinswoman, Elizabeth, cursed as barren for these many years, is pregnant, six months on. Nothing is impossible for God, says the angel. The girl looks through the air between them, seeing a child, a teenager, a man. The edges of her vision contract to a brightly-lit tunnel, rimmed with refracted light in colors that glow. She hears the sound of the angel’s voice far away. She blinks, but she is still inside the tunnel and inside the room, and her body is curved into the light and she is inside her body.

The angel’s words have weight and surface. She holds them in her hands and feels them burning cold. The motion of the world slows and stops; she can feel it inside her like a pendulum coming to rest. She senses that her words will trip the cog and restart the world. But first she must breathe. “I am,” she inhales silently—and holds it a moment—then exhales with “Here I am. I am the Lord’s servant . . .” The angel nods; the world shudders into motion once again.

Now she will learn the inner nature of what it means to wait.

***

Henri Nouwen, Dutch Catholic priest, counselor, and spiritual writer, describes a spirituality of waiting. Those who wait, he says, do so because of a promise. It is a waiting with a point, a telos, to it. The promise grows in them like a seed. “It is always a movement from something to something more,” says Nouwen.2

Their waiting is anything but passive. “The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”3 It is to be fully present in the moment, to be ready when the moment is ripe for fulfillment. It is to do in each moment that which we can, to prepare our lives to receive this blessing—repentance, forgiving others, prayer, opening ourselves to perceive the holy in the mundane.

But the waiting is also patient. A present-centered, actively waiting person is willing to stay in the moment, because that is where the deliverance will occur, no matter when it arrives. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary—each of them attentive to the moment and willing to listen. Elizabeth and Mary nurture their present, says Nouwen, and that is why they can hear the angel.

And the waiting is open-ended. There is no constraint placed on it. This is the test of one’s patience, to wait in trust without trying to manipulate the future. This is never easy, but Nouwen says it is especially difficult to remain open-ended; we have many wishes pulling us this way and that. We wish, and when our wishes are not fulfilled, we are disappointed and try to move the pieces around to make them happen. Can we stay in that ever-present moment in time as it travels into an open-ended future?

Our wishes, tested over time and infused with patience, may grow into hopes that can outlive us. Hope that is larger than any of us is that which is surrendered to God. This is what we mean when we say we “live in hope.”

***

Part of what we must do when we read Scripture is to wield our imagination in service to our faith. Across thousands of years, melding through culture, religion, and story, we share our humanity at the points of grief, loss, despair, hope, joy.

We are trying to touch the hardness of the ground they walked on, the soft fold to the weave of her shawl as it drapes across her shoulders, the upward glance of the man tightening the saddle strap on the donkey, the ghosting of the donkey’s breath in the bite of cold in the night darkness.

Could we put ourselves in the place of Mary, Joseph, and their infant as they flee into the night before Herod’s murderous rampage? Can we feel the anxiety mixed with hope as they make their way across the desert to the relative safety of Egypt? What if they reached the border, only to be separated from each other and from their child? What if they had no idea where their child was or when he would be returned to them? Could we “be touched by the feeling of their infirmity,” or their “terror by night . . . Or the pestilence that stalks in darkness”?4

Here is the baby crying, red-faced and contorted. You know how the cry begins: the long, silent, intake of breath before the ear-splitting wail that goes on and on, the eyes clamped shut, the little fists balled up, the tension radiating from every pore. We can coo and sing and tiptoe around the manger, with the cattle lowing in the background, but sooner or later the Son of God will explode in anger without words.

There will be no point in bringing up the ordination of women or the inequity of wealth distribution or any of the myriad of injustices that flare up our moral energy. This is an infant and at this moment we can only try, with patience, to learn what he needs.

And in that wordless cry they begin to realize how much there is to learn and how they must wait for the child to develop in his time. There will be moments, flashes through the ordinary of something extraordinary; the quickness of understanding, the seeing through another’s fear to the innocence beneath. Mary will treasure these things in her heart as she waits.

In years to come, Mary will ask of him a favor to save face for her friends at the wedding of their daughter. “They are out of wine,” she will say, and he will respond, “What is that to me? My time is not yet come.”

He will not be hurried in his realization of who he is, but then he does awaken to it. What at first seems a request for magic he now sees as a simple desire for harmony and celebration. “Do as he tells you,” says his mother to the servants. “Fill the jars,” he says. And the best wine flourishes under his command. “This was the first of the signs,” says John in his gospel, “by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him.” In the timeless rituals of family and community, Jesus’ glory is revealed in time.

In the Advent season we learn to wait with patience for the coming of the Lord. In the darkest time of the year, in a time when many scoff at the light and flaunt their own darkness, we will find our light springing up from the humblest of births.

“Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”5

  1. Nouwen, Henri, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2001, November 28.
  2. Nouwen, November 28.
  3. Nouwen, November 28.
  4. Ps. 91:5 NEB.
  5. Eliot, T. S. “East Coker” in Collected Poems 1090-1962. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1963, p. 185.

The Getting of Wisdom

Photo: Prottoy Hassan, Unsplash

”These are but the fringes of his power and how faint the whisper that we hear of him! — Job 26.14 (Revised English Bible)

I had just delivered a lecture to my class in Twentieth-Century Theology and conducted a discussion on Jesus’ cry from the cross of his forsakenness by God. It was my view that Jesus felt his abandonment at the very core of his being, and that far from being an example of faithlessness on his part it reflected, to a depth we can hardly comprehend, the trust he had placed in God. I had quoted several major twentieth-century theologians and noted the origins of their thought as well as the conclusions they had come to. As the class ended, an enraged senior theology major approached me. “You are thinking man’s thoughts!” he hissed. “I stand on the Word of God alone, not on man’s thoughts.”

I was taken aback. Rather curtly, I replied, “But I am a man; how else am I supposed to think?” It was my first year teaching theology and I had made the fundamental error of new teachers in assuming that my students held the associations, assumptions, and inferences that I did. My conclusions were not theirs. In fact, as I thought about it later, their assumptions, grafted into their young trunks without their awareness, were those I had given up for other starting points.

But it was not my place to jerk them out of their seats, grab them by the neck, and force them to their knees in order to submit to my truth.

My truth, as I was coming to understand, was not even the Truth, but a version of a truth I was growing into and, actually, it was not a singular truth but plural truths that branched and leafed and grew in all directions away from each other, yet were tied to a stem that flourished from a root that was planted with a desire to know Jesus, and through him, to know God. How simple it all seemed to me!

***

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” —Proverbs 4:7

Reading through the book of Proverbs feels like threading beads of many sizes on a string. Clearly, it’s a compilation of sayings built up over centuries, practical wisdom tested every day and handed on through the generations. You can almost hear the “Uh-huh” after each one.

Some patterns begin to emerge. The character of the wise person is one who is thrifty, hardworking, honest and fair, does not despise the poor, but also does not fall into the indolence that leads to poverty. Such persons respect their parents, obey the king, worship God, and know their place in the social and divine order. That order can be shaken up when people get above themselves:

Under three things the earth trembles;

under four it cannot bear up;

a slave when he becomes king,

and a fool when glutted with food;

an unloved woman when she gets

a husband,

and a maid when she succeeds her mistress. (Proverbs 30: 21-23)

Wisdom is correlated with insight or understanding in a way that suggests mutual dependency. Both can be admired independently, but neither achieves its end without the other. Ground coffee smells wonderful and a French press is a handy gadget, but either one alone isn’t worth much.

Wisdom is often ascribed to the old—all that experience counting for something beyond mere knowledge. It isn’t chronologically assured though, since an old fool is no better than a young one—in fact, worse—because a young fool can change, but an old fool . . . not so much. The young are inevitably foolish, lacking both the ability to see around corners and the experience to anticipate what they can’t yet see. Hence the need for Proverbs. But we older fools must look elsewhere.

Perhaps wisdom in this form is overrated. Proverbs is most often cast as a father’s advice to his young and ambitious sons. Wisdom is following the commandments; the opposite of wisdom is following a loose woman home. Wisdom is avoiding drink, getting up early, and taking care of business. Check your anger, submit to discipline, don’t be insolent. Wisdom brings long life and satisfaction in its train, for the righteous will be prosperous while the sinners will die in poverty and ignorance. The quick takeaway on wisdom, according to the adults I knew as a child, could be reduced to the notion that it was smart to obey your elders.

There’s much to be said in favor of this; wisdom like this keeps the streets clean and peaceful, employment up, crime down, and business humming, families intact and social roles clear. But this is prudence, not wisdom of the sort that would cause one to sacrifice everything for the ‘pearl of great price.’ It is not the love of wisdom, personified throughout the ages as Sophia and revered as the Spirit of God.

***

Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) intrigued me in high school. My curiosity was triggered by Time Magazine’s infamous April 8, 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover story. Cox predicted the waning of religion in America, something which has not happened. But of more interest to me was his discussion of the roots of secularity and its history as a social phenomenon and a counterfoil to religion. I found the distinction between the sacred and the secular puzzling—were they opposed? were they complementary? did we have to choose between them? could we keep them together? I was struggling to work out a way to be a Christian and to “be in the world.” The thing to avoid, as I saw it then, was being “of the world,” which, in my naïveté, meant my address should be Heaven—and not this world.

I wanted to be someone who could appreciate the beauties of the natural world, as well as the best of art, literature, music, science, and philosophy. Over against that was the imperative of fulfilling the mission to make all people Christ’s disciples—which, in practical terms, usually meant bringing other Christians into our fold. In my case, as a teacher of religion in a denominational college, there was an explicit expectation to keep the ones we had untainted by the world.

I hoped I could find a way to live through a humanized Christianity that unashamedly sought transcendence from within and through this deeply flawed but wonderful world. There was no simple solution to this, of course, “but the waking mind,” as Seamus Heaney says, “desires constantly some clarified allegiance, without complication or ambivalence.”1

My search is that of anyone who seeks a meaningful life. I don’t want a theocracy nor could I live within a joyless ideology, political or otherwise, that seeps bitterness. Neither would I want a self-indulgent form of religious hedonism that placed my comfort at the center of the universe. To speak in the language of the parables, I wish to be salt and light to the world.

Even that has its traps if we delude ourselves into thinking we’re indispensable or that we’re somehow owed special favors because of our membership in the church or our self-designation as followers of Christ.

***

For many years I taught courses in ethics: bioethics, communication ethics, public relations ethics, journalism ethics, business ethics, theoretical ethics, Christian ethics. Ethics as a discipline has been sliced and diced into a thousand pieces, every field claiming a particular slant of the light all its own. This proliferation has been driven by a belated recognition that moral values are both good business and should be at the heart of human endeavor. Curriculae are developed that offer a feast of courses, each of them claiming their own vocabulary and featuring specialized case studies. These courses become islands of power for their departments and their instructors. Textbook publishers readily oblige, offering expensively updated books every year or so.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed teaching, especially when discussions with students got beyond their reflexive relativism (“Who’s to say what’s right or wrong? Who are you to judge?”) to an informed and thoughtful reflection on their own moral and spiritual discoveries. At those times, the burden of being expected to provide the answers to moral dilemmas eased and I could feel that the students and I were fellow travelers. I could give them historical ethical models of how humans have wrestled with these common dilemmas and then they could try them out for themselves. These were not formulas with a right answer; they were ways to think practically about complex human actions, using fairly simple methods.

***

At the heart of learning is the answering of a call, vocare in Latin, a vocation that lures us onward no matter what the discipline. The calling is from God, God as Subject, calling to us as subjects in a world of objects. There is freedom in the realization that in God’s eyes we are subjects worthy to be loved and to be listened to. “How things are between man and his idea of the Divinity determines everything in his life, the quality and connectedness of every feeling and thought, and the meaning of every action,” remarked the poet Ted Hughes.2

What we know of God is what he has chosen to make known to us. In spite of our limitations, we have spoken in myriad languages, during thousands of years, of the One who calls us to rejoice in our search for transcendence.

In the fullness of time (a felicitous phrase), God enfleshed his Word, that Word which had first been spoken and then reverberated down through the millennia. It appeared among us as Immanuel, God-become-human.

I am more and more convinced that Jesus in Word and Spirit is everything we can know of God. This learning is the deep quest of our lives. Out of the secular, the mundane, the earthly, we form the sacral and lift it to God. Music, art, literature, science, history—even religion—all of this, if we allow it, points beyond itself to a transcendence that calls to the deepest part of us. There is in each of us a homing device for the Garden, for a place and time that is open-ended, fully satisfying, never finished nor complete, ever new.

“How faint the whisper that we hear of him!” marvels Job of God. And yet the consciousness of God fills Job’s spirit and thoughts, first, in the argument he would take up with God and then in the knowledge that everything is, finally, within God’s embrace—the universe, the world, and us.

If I were to encounter that irate student today, with his claim to speak the mind of God, I would say, “Thank you for the vote of confidence! As one of my friends says, ‘I know more and more about less and less.’ But I know that someday I shall know as I am known. Perhaps that is the beginning of wisdom.”

  1. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989, p. xii.
  2. Quoted in Michael Mayne, The Sunrise of Wonder. American edition. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012, p. 212.