“Patience attains all that it strives for.” At least that is what the saint says. The prayer, “Nada te Turbe” was found in Teresa of Avila’s breviary, written in her own hand. Since the 16th century her private words have consoled countless numbers of people, including me. I even put it to music for the church to sing (before I discovered several other versions).
Nada te turbe,
Let nothing disturb you;
Nada te espante,
Let nothing dismay you;
Todo se pasa.
All things pass:
Dios no se muda.
God never changes.
Todo lo alcanza.
All that it strives for.
Quien a Dios tiene
The one who has God
Nada le falta.
Lacks for nothing:
Gm Dm Cm D
Sólo Dios basta.
God alone suffices.
Teresa is credited with reviving Catholicism in the 1560’s and 70’s when Protestantism threatened to bring down the church. Her most significant contribution was founding the Reformed Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelite Convent of San Jose, a more radical version of the Carmelites. At the time of her death in 1582 she had started seventeen further houses, in Spain.
Teresa is best known today as one of the great Catholic mystics, which means she recounted her personal experiences with God. She described her raptures in several books. Among the most widely read works is her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1611).
Teresa of Avila may have been the last proponent of the virtue of patience. Around the time she founded the Discalced Carmelites to restore basic, early church Christianity, the Catholic Church was breaking up. Spain was conquering South and Central America. Europeans were colonizing the world. Spain was in constant war to secure Charles V’s royal claims. Copernicus revealed the earth orbited the sun. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. Henry the VIII murdered his wives and founded the Anglican Church. Cervantes wrote El Cid. John Calvin wrote The Institutes. Shakespeare and John Donne wrote their early works. Nostradamus published his prophecies. It was a wild time. Flush toilets, the spinning wheel, the pocket watch, the graphite pencil were all introduced.
Yet Teresa still disciplined herself to be patient, like her examples from the Early Church, reciting her prayer. She might have been the last leader on the continent to believe “God suffices” as the Europeans rushed into the modern world and the Americans soon invented a country (for the first time) to represent all that was new. I’m not sure most Americans would consider patience to be an important character trait, would you? — even though my mother used to mockingly chide me when I was tired of waiting with, “Patience is a virtue,” unwittingly channeling Piers Plowman from 1360 (Passus II, 383).
Patience, the lost virtue
Patience may be the lost virtue Christians, in particular, need to rediscover. I think many of us might see it as a bit out of date, now that we are accustomed to complaining if Amazon is a day late, or the line at the drive through is taking too long. A person lamented yesterday that their arrival at their appointment was thwarted for ten minutes by the Schuylkill. They were very frustrated. We have things timed down to the minute.
A book I have been reading, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, has reminded me the Bible writers and the earliest Christians considered patience to be a central trait of authentic Christianity. I want to leave you with a bit of their wisdom so you can follow their fruitful lead.
- Origen of Alexandria (died around 253) quoted Romans 5:3-4 this way, “Tribulation produces patience, indeed patience produces assent to belief, and assent to belief produces hope.”
- The KJV translates it: “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.”
- My favorite, the NRSV says, “And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
- I think the VOICE amplified translation sums it up well. “And that’s not all. We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness.”
You’ll notice that the word for patience is often translated “endurance” or “perseverance.” It is an active idea, not passive. It is not just waiting for your birthday to come without too much complaining. It is a discipline exercised by people who want to develop. It is a strategy for demonstrating glory. Patience takes intention and effort. It is a way of seeing and acting. Patience is not swallowing your resentment when it takes a while for your kids to put on their shoes. It is not just standing in line at the store behind a less-than-able shopper without groaning or looking around for another line with panic.
As you can see from the constellation of translations, patience is an outlook that results in a way of life. Patience is trusting God in the middle of everything, especially when you suffer. For the early church, patience was sticking with Jesus when the world was sticking it to them. They were not like the Stoics who endured by tamping down emotions and developing personal resilience, even seeking imperviousness. It was quite the opposite. Christian patience is opening up to the Spirit of God incarnate in our hearts and behavior. The eternal lens and heartfelt trust of the early church was central to their endurance. Patience is knowing everything works for good to them who love God.
The early church’s premier virtue
Few writings from the first 300 years of the church are about a “topic.” They are mostly stories or compilations of teachings. But Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian and Lactantius all wrote about patience. The early church did not produce writings about evangelism, at least as most modern people think about it: verbal persuasion and radical changes of allegiance. But they did write about patience, which changed them and changed their world. Their way of patience made the first Christians a distinct and attractive alternative to the brutal Roman world.
I was happy to discover Kreider’s book when I was listening to several couples trying to work out the tribulation of their power struggle. Many marriages, not to mention churches and other institutions, went through a lot of trouble during the pandemic. We are all still sorting things out. For many people, the trouble in the world became trouble in their relationships. It is terrible how often general trouble gets translated into blaming the people close to us: “If I have trouble, it must be you.”
The early church helped each other learn patience and didn’t turn on each other; they turned their behavior out into the world. Their way of life was salt and light. St Perpetua (martyred around 203) caused many conversions the day she refused to grovel in the arena, begging for mercy, but stood still and dignified, patiently trusting God for her future. If my lens developed a character like hers, I could at least endure the development of my mate (or myself) and give some time and space for our relationship to grow before I hardened my heart, cut them off, or found something better.
I hope you are getting the idea of how the virtue of patience is foundational to enduring as a Jesus follower and making a difference in our relationships and culture. Here are a few final characteristics that sum up how the Bible writers and early church teach about patience:
- God is patient. She is walking with you and working for your best right now.
- Jesus demonstrates God’s patience. Origen calls him “Patience itself.” He highlights how to trust in oneself and in miracle at the same time, in real time.
- Patient people don’t just manipulate outcomes; they can take risks in trust and not worry what they can’t control is as urgent as it seems.
- Patience is not hurried; it accepts incompleteness and can wait.
- Patient behavior inevitably undermines the world’s common sense.
- Trusting in patience to change lives is the opposite of relying on violence and retaliating. It is innately uncoercive.
- Patience is hopeful, confident in God. As Teresa noted, God alone suffices.
Most families are good laboratories for learning patience. Churches should be a good place for learning it, too. They are the main places we learn to forebear in love, or don’t. In a marriage we have a daily opportunity to develop a way of living together that hopes more in God’s blessing than in the immediate satisfaction of our desires. As one of my clients said the other day, in marriage we learn to act out love rather than wait for love to make us feel like connecting. Patience opens up our families to God’s presence and relaxes the stranglehold of our disappointment and longing. Patience let’s things grow, and delights in nurturing what God is growing up in our loved one — that wonder, that creation, that future resurrected being.