To know how to wait
Advent, for many people, is one of the most beautiful liturgical times of year. We are about to be led through a liturgy of waiting for the King of love.
Today’s Gospel, though, is a stark reminder of what it is to not bother waiting. Jesus reminds us that in Noah’s day: ‘… people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away.’ He goes on: ‘It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then, of two men in the fields, one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.’
In this world we are taught that waiting is bad. We pay more money to not wait, whether we’re in an airport queue or expecting a parcel delivery. Being fast-tracked is a status symbol.
But waiting is a good thing, in the spiritual sense. At the very heart of our communion with God is prayer, which is itself a teacher of patience. In prayer, we wait, often in silence and darkness, for that next word from God. And the waiting is unprescribed: it isn’t like waiting at a bus stop, where we can see an auto-updating ETA of the bus we’re going to catch. We could be minutes, hours, days, perhaps years. Waiting is fused to the spiritual process; just as prayer and sleep are such good friends, neither can we arrive ready at the gates of heaven if we haven’t prepared ourselves in that vault of darkness: waiting.
Jesus puts it brilliantlly by referencing a burglar who comes at an unprescribed time: ‘So stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ He uses a burglar because, if we are not careful, everything will be taken away from us if we haven’t learnt to wait, if we haven’t developed a relationship with God. Because this is what we take with us when we meet him.
We might use this beautiful liturgical season, as we listen to the readings and take part in the liturgy, to learn how to wait. The first point of call is to set aside time to pray, to make this time one of expectancy, of waiting. Enter into that unmeasured time of waiting for the King of Love, and live the diet of trust, knowing that He WILL come. We just don’t know when.
St Rafael Arnaiz Baron, a 20th century Cistercian saint, writes often about waiting. Here follows a long but beautiful passage from his journal about what it can be like to wait, in the spiritual sense, and how it can be such a beautiful thing to do:
‘Three o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy day in December. It’s time for work, and as it’s Saturday and very cold we don’t go out to the fields. We work in a room where lentils are washed, potatoes peeled, collards chopped etc … we call it the “laboratorium.”
There is a long table here with benches, and a window with a crucifix above it.
It is a gloomy day. The clouds are dark. The wind blows with fitful indecision. A few drops of water fall reluctantly, licking the glass. And above all there is the cold – a cold worthy of the season and the country.
The truth is that apart from the cold, which I can feel in my frozen feet and chilled hands, I see these things mostly in my imagination, since I have hardly glanced at the window. The afternoon is dark and everything appears sad to me. I find the silence oppressive, and it appears that some little devils are determined to tease me with what I call “memories”… have patience and wait.
I have a knife in my hands and in front of me is a basket with what appear to be huge white carrots, but are actually turnips. I have never seen such big, cold… What can I do? There is no choice but to peel them.
Time passes slowly, and slowly my knife passes between the peel and the meat of the turnips, which I set down beautifully peeled.
The demons are still making war on me. Why have I left my home to come here and peel these ugly things in this bitter cold? It is truly ridiculous to sit here peeling turnips with the solemnity of an undertaker!
A very small and subtle demon slips deep inside me and quitly reminds me of my house, my parents and brothers, and the freedom that I have left behind to lock myself up here with lentils, potatoes, cabbage and turnips.
It is a gloomy day… I don’t look at the window— but I can guess how sad it looks out there. My hands are red, red as the devils, my feet are numb … And my soul? Lord, perhaps my soul suffers a bit… no matter … I take refuge in silence.
I pass the time with my thoughts, the turnips and the cold, when suddenly, swift as the wind, a powerful light penetrates into my soul… a divine light, in a single moment… Someone asks me what I am doing. What am I doing? ¡Virgen Santa! What a question! Peeling turnips! Peeling turnips? Why? And my heart gives a leap and answers without thinking: I am peeling turnips for love, for love of Jesus Christ.
I cannot say anything that could really be understood about this. But inside, deep within my soul, great peace replaced the perturbation that I felt before. I can only say that one can turn the smallest things in the world into acts of love for God… The opening or shutting of an eye – done for His Name’s sake – can gain us Heaven… The peeling of a few turnips out of true love of God can merit as much as the conquest of the Indies. The thought that it is only through His mercy that I have the great good fortune of doing something for Him fills my souls with such joy that— if I were to follow my impulse – I would have begun to throw turnips left and right, trying to give these poor roots of the earth some share in the joy of my heart… I would have done veritable juggling feats with the turnips, the knife, and the apron.
I laughed till there were tears in my eyes (though the tears might have been because of the cold) at the little red devils, who, taken aback by the transformation in me, hid themselves among some sacks of chickpeas and a basket of cabbages that were there.
Of what can I complain? Why grieve at what is a cause for joy? What more could a soul desire than to suffer a little for a crucified God?
We are nothing – worth nothing; we go down in the least temptation and fly up comforted by the smallest touch of divine love.
When I began working clouds of sadness covered the sky. My soul suffered seeing itself on the cross. Everything weighed me down: the Rule, the work, the silence, the lack of light on a gloomy day, so gray and so cold. The wind, blowing through the windows, rain and mud … the absence of the sun. The world was so far away… so far … and I meanwhile peeled turnips without thinking of my God.
But all things pass, even temptation … Time passed, and peace came, and there was light. Now I don’t care if the day is cold, if there are clouds, if there is wind, or if it is sunny. All I want is to peel my turnips, peaceful, happy and content, looking at the Virgin, blessing God.
What does it matter– a moment’s grief, the suffering of a moment? I can say is that there is no pain without compensation in this or in another life, and in fact to gain Heaven we are asked very little. Here in the Abbey it is perhaps easier than in the world, but it does not depend on this or that kind of life; in the world we have the same means of offering something to God. But what happens is that the world distracts and makes many opportunities go to waste. Man is the same here as there; his ability to suffer and to love is the same, wherever you go you can find the cross.
Let us make use of the time … let us love this blessed cross the Lord sends our way… whatever form it might take.
Seize the little things of everyday life, ordinary life… To be a saint it is not necessary to do great things, but only to do little things greatly.
In the world many opportunities are wasted, but that is because the world distracts people… It is as good to love God in the world with talk, as in the Monastery with silence. The point is to do something for Him… remembering Him… One’s state of life, place, and occupation don’t matter.
God can sanctify me whether I peel potatoes or govern an empire.
What a shame that the world is so distracted… for I have seen that people are not really bad … and that we all suffer, but do not know how to suffer…
If only they would see through the frivolity, that layer of false joy with which the world hides its tears, through the ignorance of God, if they would only lift up their eyes on high… then they would surely experience the same thing as the monk with the turnips: many tears would be dried, many burdens would become light and many crosses sweet, and then they could be offered to Christ…
When the work was finished, and I knelt in prayer at the feat of the crucified Jesus… I placed there a basket of beautifully peeled, clean turnips… I had nothing else to offer, but God accepts anything offered with one’s whole heart – whether it be turnips or empires.
The next time that I peel vegetables, whatever they are, even if they are icy cold, I will ask Blessed Mary not to allow the little red devils to come near to tease me. I will ask her instead to send me angels from heaven. Then I shall peel away, and the angels will take the work of my hands away and lay red carrots at the feet of the Virgin Mary and at the feet of Jesus they will lay white turnips and potatoes and onions, and cabbage and lettuce…
If I live many years in Abbey I shall turn Heaven into a sort of vegetable market. And when the Lord calls me and tells me: “Enough peeling, drop you knife and apron and come to enjoy what you have made” … And when I arrive in Heaven and see God and the Saints — and among them such heaps of vegetables… Lord Jesus, I won’t be able to help it – I will have to laugh!’