The Lost Art of Waiting

Every once in a while I find myself sitting back on my heels, marveling at today’s latest technology. Most times we’re just too close to see it, but we live in an age of astounding achievements, a profusion of gismos and gadgets that are gradually re-shaping our lives, sawing off the corners of inconvenience and discomfort, speeding us along in pursuit of our great dream: “progress”.

We can instantaneously communicate with people almost anywhere in the world over the Internet—and even see and hear them thanks to Skype and a growing number of similar tools; the hand-written letter sent through the postal system seems almost obsolete. We have a plethora of movies at our fingertips on Netflix; searching for a movie at the local video rental store, or at the library on the shelves or in the catalog system, is largely unnecessary. Like an icon of this technological trend, smart phones have literally placed the world’s knowledge base at our fingertips, fast eliminating the need to sit with an unanswered question or to slowly work out a solution on our own.

Despite the apparent benefits of these inventions, I can’t quite shake the image of frogs in a huge pot of water, which is heating oh so slowly and boiling them alive.

This analogy, of course, is mostly absurd. But we would be remiss not to ponder the effects these conveniences are having on our lives, and we deceive ourselves inexcusably if we think they have none.


The effect that imprints itself uppermost on my mind just now is the habit of instant gratification. We are always eliminating the need to wait for something. To anticipate, to long, to pine, to yearn like a dear yearns for running streams—in a very real way, these are less and less familiar experiences to us.

An unsettling question suggests itself: Have we lost the art of waiting?

Our culture has a passion for desire fulfillment. But in striving to satisfy our wants so quickly, are we not compromising something? All too often, the end is an impoverished imitation of the thing desired; something readily available is valued more cheaply than something that is hard to come by. In a way, you love something more the longer you wait for it.

Perhaps we could still be convinced of this. And yet, there’s more.


As society hurries on its way, keeping busy—already shamelessly getting ready for Christmas right in the midst of the bustle of Thanksgiving —the Church with her age-old Liturgical Calendar offers a gentle reminder:


Something in this word merits a season, a space of time set apart. There is something here, something sacred; more than just the habit of delaying the fulfillment of our desires. Something happens in us in our waiting, that doesn’t happen in our striving and satisfying of desires.

It is not the waiting of idleness or of relaxation; the putting off of something we’d rather do later. Nor is it the waiting of anxious, restless anticipation, unsettled by our need to have something we don’t or to be somewhere we aren’t yet.

It is the waiting of rest, like the rest of a baby sleeping on his mother, like the rest of a seed deep in the soil waiting for spring. Just as the seed needs that period of still, silent growth beneath the surface… in the dark… underground, so too we need this time of rest—to slow down, to go a little deeper, to quiet ourselves, and to grow.

“The law of growth is rest,” says Caryll Houselander, an English mystic writing during the horrors of World War II.

“We must be content in winter to wait patiently through the long bleak season…these seasons which seem to be the most empty are the most pregnant with life. It is in them that the Christ-life is growing in us, laying hold of our soil with strong roots that thrust deeper and deeper, drawing down the blessed rain of mercy and the sun of Eternal love through our darkness and heaviness and hardness, to irrigate and warm those roots…. We must allow the Christ-life to grow in us in rest. Our whole being must fold upon Christ’s rest in us, as the earth folds upon the seed.”(The Passion of the Infant Christ, 15)

Here, dipping deeper than the surface, we see the mysterious value of this Advent season. Before Bethlehem, before the shepherds and the angels and the kings, there is the hidden presence of Christ within His Mother, resting before the great event of His birth. To rush through purchases and presents and preparations and miss this hidden moment is to starve our souls of a vital space in time, set apart to work a miracle in us we can’t afford to miss.
pregnant-maryAs the unborn Christ grows within His Mother, rests in her, waits in her, He is accomplishing a great work, “making her into Himself,
making Himself from her.”(23) Houselander speaks of this period of Christ’s gestation as  “a foreshadowing of what the Incarnation would mean for us,” because –

“In us, too, Christ rests as He rested in Mary…. The same thing happens when, allowing the Infant Christ to rest in us, we wait patiently on His own timing of His growth in us, and give Him just what He asks, the extremely simple things that are ourselves—our hands and feet, our eyes and ears, our words, our thoughts, our love.”(23-4)

Like the unborn Christ, the tiny unleavened host we receive is the presence of God within us, growing, forming us more and more into His likeness, taking the ordinary pieces of our little lives and making them full of grace, making them redemptive.

Without the art of waiting, waiting on His work in us, we are trapped in our toiling and spinning, straining helplessly after the real growth that can only come as a gift.

This moment, then – this seeming long-lost space of time between want and satisfaction, between desire and fulfillment – is a thing we cannot afford to lose.

With the season of Advent, the Church invites us into this space, beckoning with deep colors and candles and quiet, calling us to come reclaim the value of waiting and of rest, to recognize the hidden Christ, and to realize the growth we are powerless to accomplish otherwise.

It takes some doing, these days. It may mean unplugging our iPod, or turning off our iTunes, and being ok with the silence. It may mean slowing down, prioritizing that to-do list and making time for rest. It may mean taking a break from Facebook or Twitter, giving our time instead to writing a “real” letter, to sitting longer or more often in the presence of God, to reading something that will help our heart embrace the growth of Christ within us (e.g., The Reed of God, or The Passion of the Infant Christ, by Caryll Houselander).

Christ has been growing in Mary since we celebrated his conception, the feast of the Incarnation, nine months ago on March 25th—but these last weeks the Church sets aside particularly as a time of anticipation and preparation for our encounter with the newborn Savior.

Let’s use this season to reacquaint ourselves with the lost art of waiting.


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