I waited 10 years from the time I knew I wanted to get married until the day I got married.
I’ve been waiting over 10 years to have a child.
I’ve been waiting two weeks for a certain package to come in the mail.
I’ve been waiting for a month (and will continue for several more months) for warmer weather to come.
I’ve been anxiously waiting for 24 hours now to hear if a dear friend will pull through a dangerous injury she sustained yesterday.
I’ve also been waiting for two nerve-racking days to hear if the offer on the house we want has been accepted.
Sometimes it seems as if life is merely a series of events, with periods of fear and nothingness in between…a “quick succession of busy nothings” (to quote Jane Austen’s character Fanny Price in Mansfield Park). Sometimes we know exactly what we’re waiting for, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes we’re surprised with something unexpected we never wanted, and have to accept a new reality or wait until “normal” comes back.
The problem is that the best parts of our lives happen while we’re waiting – while we’re moving from something to something else. And if we’re not aware of the Lord’s work in our lives, of our surroundings, or if we don’t keep a positive outlook, we miss a whole lot of important, saint-making opportunities in the ‘down time’.
In his talk entitled “A Spirituality of Waiting”, Fr. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest who lived in Canada, underscored the importance of active and open-ended waiting. We think we know what we want, and we tell God just as we see it. And then it seems as if we can do nothing but stand by idly and wait. Not so, says Nouwen.
“Most of us think of waiting as something very passive, a hopeless state determined by events totally out of our hands. The bus is late. You cannot do anything about it, so you have to sit there and just wait. […] But there is none of that passivity in Scripture. Those who are waiting [ie. Simeon, Anna, Elizabeth, Mary, etc.] are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing. That’s the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun. Active waiting means to be fully present to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening.” (Emphasis mine)
There is always more to our lives than we can imagine. In every moment we may be called to some specific work, especially in those annoying delays we didn’t expect. Perhaps that bus is late because the Lord wishes for you to smile and talk with the fellow passenger who is at the stop with you. Perhaps your conversation is the only kindness this man will experience all day and it will make him rethink the hurt he plans to do himself later.
But there’s more. We could be actively waiting for something very specific to happen, and when it doesn’t, we despair of the Lord’s love and providence for our lives. Nouwen addresses this:
“Much of our waiting is filled with [concrete] wishes: “I wish the weather would be better. I wish the pain would go.” For this reason, a lot of our waiting is not open-ended. Instead, our waiting is a way of controlling the future. We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair.”
But it is God, and only God, who rules our past, present and future, because he knows what we need better than we know ourselves. Nouwen points out that to wait, actively and open-endedly, is an “enormously radical attitude toward life” as is “giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear.”
The important thing to ask yourself is, “Where is my focus?” If our minds and hearts are full of that which is lacking, we sink into dark places, like St. Peter who took his eyes off the Lord and floundered in the stormy waters. But when Peter’s eyes were fixed on the Lord, he did something extraordinary – he got out of the boat and walked on water! This change in outlook can make the difference between ordinary and extraordinary in our own lives as well. It means having patience with the periods of ‘down time’ – those annoying pauses in between events – and trusting that when we stay with that pain, whatever it is, we will birth something new, something beyond our expectations or imaginings.
This is waiting with true hope. Hope is more than just wanting our wishes to come true. “Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises [of God] and not just according to our wishes.” What has God promised you in your life? Where has he been faithful to you in the past? These times are all gifts given to you by the Lord, and opportunities for you to strengthen your trust and hope in him.
Simone Weil, a Jewish writer, once said, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” If this is the case, I’m failing miserably at my spiritual life. The beautiful thing is that the Lord keeps giving me opportunities to better myself – waiting for a child, for news of my friend, for a package, for warmer weather – to prove his unending love and providence for me. I have so many opportunities to wait for Him. What makes all the difference is how I’m doing it.
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