The 14th century English phrase “Patience is a virtue” is believed to stem from the much older Latin, “Maxima enim, patientia virtus,” — “Patience is the greatest virtue.”
But, in English or Latin, the core lesson of these maxims has eluded me for much of my life. Not that I don’t understand that patience is a virtue. It’s just a virtue I’ve long struggled to attain.
Unfortunately, my lack of patience, my constant need to be running efficiently through some purposeful agenda, carried over into my efforts at nursing home ministry. I developed a set routine for most of my visits to our nursing home residents. Brief pleasantries. Prayer requests. Prayer. Read the Gospel reading for the day. The Liturgies of Lay Eucharistic Visitation (Communion) and Unction (anointing with oil and prayer). Closing prayer.
For most of the residents, this flow works well. Sometimes we spend more time in visiting, and with me just listening, either before or after the Eucharist. Sometimes, when they’re feeling bad or are barely awake, it’s truncated down to the Lord’s prayer, Eucharist and Unction. But, most of the time, these visits haven’t challenged the virtue of my patience — or impatience.
And, then, God sent me one particular nursing home resident. Like many of the men and women in our small ministry, he suffers from dementia. Soon after meeting him, I told my wife Tammy God sent him to teach me patience. And it has been quite a lesson. In the six months I have known him, I have memorized all his (three) favorite stories. Each time I visit him, and in the middle of each prayer service, he tells one of these three stories. In exquisite and elaborate detail. For 30 minutes at a stretch.
Our communion visits would begin with prayer. Halfway through the prayer, the “Amen” still waiting, he’d launch into a story. A quarter to half hour later, we’d finish the prayer. Then, we’d begin serving Communion. Halfway through getting the chalice to his lips, he’d start in on the story again. The same story. With the same details. For 15 more minutes.
In the beginning, I tried to gently interrupt him and steer us back to the prayer book. But, once he started the story, the story had to be finished. Sometimes, I’d get us steered back to an unfinished prayer, only to have him start the story again — from the beginning — three seconds later.
Before long, I learned once he started on a story, to just let it go. To let go of my need to be in control. To let go of my schedule and my agenda. And just listen. I learned to just sit, in peace, and to let him drive. His reiterations of those three stories became a time of meditation for me, a time of quiet prayer and presence with Christ, as he recounted his well-worn tales. And always, at the end, we’d say the Lord’s Prayer and share Communion.
I’ve learned a great deal about patience in these visits. But, I always felt there was something more to learn. And today, he shared it with me.
Our visit started out as usual. I said a quiet prayer for patience as I approached, and settled in with the anticipation of some quiet, meditative story time. But, the story didn’t come. After I’d set the table for Eucharist we said the Lord’s Prayer, and he sat quietly for a moment, then said, “That’s a good prayer — you can’t go wrong with that one.”
I agreed, and he continued: “There’s another good prayer. The last words my grandfather ever said — ‘Jesus, come and take me.'”
I suppressed the urge to add anything, and for a good, long pause we both just sat there, dwelling in his grandfather’s final words. It was his death prayer. But, it occurred to me, it is just as much a life prayer — a prayer by which to live. “Jesus, come and take me.” Take away my pride. Take away my ego. Take away my impatience, my fear, my weakness. Take away all that is me, and give me you.
After a minute or two, he went on to give a sermon, in two sentences, on how we are to follow God in the Body of Christ.
“Jesus didn’t come to mess around,” he said. “He didn’t intend for us to elaborate, but to cooperate.”
Again, we sat quietly to digest what he’d just said. Jesus didn’t come to mess around. In his brief ministry, Jesus taught us to turn the world upside down. To love selflessly. To accept and give grace. To love our enemies. The meek, the suffering, the weak and the poor are lifted up. The rich and powerful torn down. Jesus taught with his words, his actions, and ultimately in giving up himself to be crucified. Jesus teaches a lesson so radical, so transformative, it had to be taught in the blood of the cross, and the glory of an empty grave. Jesus didn’t come to mess around.
But, unfortunately, we tend to mess around quite a bit with his message. As my friend at the nursing home pointed out, we like to elaborate more than cooperate. We like to elaborate on Christ’s message, to make it our own, to lay special claim to it and elevate ourselves above others by drawing distinctions of doctrine and dogma. It is okay for us to disagree. But that is not our calling. We are called to cooperate — to build up the Body of Christ by focusing on our common bonds in Christ, which are far more important than any differences we may create in our attempts to elaborate on God’s word.
Finally, my friend shared what I believe is at the core of the Gospel message: “There is no reason to fear.”
“There’s no way to lose with Jesus,” he said. “You just have to stick with Him and go all the way.”
And that, really, is the struggle and the glory of all who follow Christ. It is our cross. We strive to stick with Him, all the way. We don’t know how long that Way will be, or where it will take us, but we know we are safe, and loved, to the end — in which there is no end.
Thinking again of his grandfather’s last words, he offered some sound advice to me, and to us all.
“I know the day is coming, but I don’t know when it’s coming,” he said. “Just be ready.”
We closed with Communion, sharing the Body and Blood of Christ. I thanked him, and as I walked away, as I continue my walk on The Way, I strive to live my life to follow his advice: “Just be ready.”
Eternal God, give me the strength of spirit to open myself fully to you, to die to myself and live fully in you; fill me with your Love, that I may better love my neighbor, and always seek to cooperate more than to elaborate, to build up your Kingdom; strengthen me and embolden me to stick with you along The Way, to the end; and guide me, my King and Savior, in such a way that my life is always ready to be offered up to your Glory. Amen.