A Small But Tenacious Flame

To be a person of faith is to be well-acquainted with waiting.  It is to be well-practiced in living in the in-between time of the world as it is and the world we are convinced is promised by God.  Each year, the seasons of the Christian year remind us of this.  During Advent, we wait, we long, we repent, we prepare for the coming of Christ.  During Lent, we wait, we long, we repent, we prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And during the rest of the year, we rehearse these familiar themes of a kingdom of God that is both now and not yet, inaugurated but not yet consummated.  We live, we hope, we look for signs of the kingdom, we participate in its coming.  And we wait.

girl reading waiting room

I don’t like waiting, truth be told, whether it’s during Advent of Lent or any other time of the year.  Undoubtedly the process plays some important role in my spiritual formation that could not be achieved any other way, but it rarely feels like it.  And while paying attention to the Christian calendar certainly keeps me mindful of the story of God and is preferable to organizing my life according to shopping days, it can get pretty easy to wonder if it is simply the substituting of one vain repetition for another.  Waiting can be a spiritually formative time, but it can also provide fertile ground for cynicism.

To be sure, there is much to be said for a liturgical emphasis on waiting.  At the very least, it acknowledges that things aren’t right in our world, and it prevents us from blithely assuming (pretending?) that faith in Christ is the gateway into “the life you’ve always wanted” or health and wealth or some other such nonsense.  In acknowledging that faith cannot be separated from some form of waiting, there is at least an acknowledgment that there is a holy restlessness built into the structure of faith.

But, like so many things, waiting gets old.  We get tired of waiting.  We get fed up with the “in between” time in which we live.  Whatever theological work might be accomplished with the “now/not yet” understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God, the same is not always true existentially.  Words like “tension” and “waiting” sound nice, at times, because they give us official handles to deal with the ambiguity and confusion of existence in a world we believe to be guided and sustained by a good God, but sometimes tension is painful and disorienting.  And sometimes waiting just plain sucks.

fire in the dark

Tomáš Halík is a Roman Catholic priest from the Czech Republic who has written a book called Patience with God.  He  writes very specifically for what he calls the “Zacchaeuses” of the world—the doubters, the unsure, the noncommittal, those, perhaps, sick of waiting. Throughout the book, Halík maintains that one of the chief differences between Christians and atheists is patience:

In the closing crescendo of his paean to love, St. Paul writes that love is patient. Yes, and faith too is patient, if it really is faith. Faith is patience, in fact. In the same way that love for another person—its strength and authenticity—manifests and proves itself in its patience with the other, so also is faith present (albeit hidden, implicit, and anonymous) in a certain form of patience in the face of all of life’s difficulties, hardships, and ambiguities. And it is in that patience—and maybe above all therein—that its strength and authenticity manifest themselves….

In the final analysis, the patience we exercise in the face of life’s constant enigmas, by resisting the temptation to defect and resort to simplistic answers, is always our patience with God, who is not “at hand.” But what else is faith but this openness in the face of God’s hiddenness, the bold “yes” (or at least “yearnful maybe”) of our hope in the profound stillness of God’s silence, that small but tenacious flame that bursts forth again and again from the ashes of resignation even in the longest, darkest, and coldest of nights? In Christianity there is no way of separating faith and hope—and patience is their common attribute and fruit.

Is it possible for our waiting to be characterized by both frustration and gratitude? Restlessness and joy?  Anger and peace?  Protest and acceptance?  I think Halík would say that it is.  I think he would say that it is indicative of a faith that is both honest about life and open to the possibilities of God.

All of us, whether we are religious or not, have to come to some kind of peace, however tenuous, with the restlessness, the discontent, the waiting in a world that is not as it should be.  There is no other choice.  And if I must wait, Halík’s approach has much to commend itself.  I like his emphasis on the role of patience in faith and how it may just be a sign of strength (as opposed to wishful thinking).  I like the image of a “small but tenacious flame” coming out of “the ashes of resignation.”  I like the idea of patient faith as a “resisting” of the “temptation to defect” to despair and cynicism.

I want to wait like that.

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