Dante and the Fruits of Patience
I wrote over the weekend about a great gift I received on Good Friday: a gift of deeper reconciliation with my dad, something I have sought for a long time, but was not sure I would ever receive. I titled the post “The Way of Love vs. the Way of Justice,” and talked about how the teaching of Dante and the spiritual counsel of my priest helped me to let go of the expectation of Justice in my relationship with my dad, and instead to lay hold of the power of Love. Unexpectedly, it bore fruit just this past weekend. How Dante ends with the reconciliation of myself to the imperfection of life, even though I had not received the reconciliation I wanted and prayed so hard for.
Well, now I have. It will be so great to tell audiences when I talk about this book that the breakthrough happened.
How Dante Can Save Your Lifeis about the struggle to change what you can, to accept what you cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference. That’s a self-help cliche, but it really is true. As I write in the book (see the “Way of Love, Way of Justice” post for the full quote), when in my anger I told Father Matthew that I was so agitated because I wanted justice (that is, I wanted my family to treat me with the love and respect I thought was just and right), he said to me that love does not require justice. The greatest example, of course, is Jesus on the Cross, asking out of love for his Father to forgive those who persecuted him, because they don’t know what they are doing.
That was an enormous challenge to me, but a mountain I particularly needed to climb to be healed. It required a degree of humility that I, in my pride, was reluctant to accept. But I had learned from Dante’s journey the lesson St. Augustine taught:
Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.
So I did as I was told — imperfectly, initially with a grudging heart, but I did it. I did it not expecting it to “work.”
But it did.
Last night, Julie and I were having a serious talk with the kids about patience, and how they must learn to be more patient with each other. Julie told them that the Lenten fast is about learning how to rein in our appetites for a higher spiritual purpose. I told the kids about the part of Dante’s Purgatorio in which the pilgrim sojourns with the Gluttons on the holy mountain. They are all gaunt, suffering from hunger and thirst, but they suffer in joy, because they know that it is all for their own spiritual healing. I write about what a powerful effect these cantos had on me:
If I believed with all my heart that my suffering could purify me, would I run from it with such vigor? This canto invited me to think about how the physical and spiritual struggles I had been through since coming home had at times brought me closer to God—and how my own bruised ego had, at other times, pushed him away.
I am a glutton for food and drink, no doubt, but I am also a glutton to feed my soul on other things that I cannot have. On this terrace, I grasped the nature of my hunger, my craving, for approval and acceptance by my family. I wanted it so much that I had made it more important than the hunger for God.
More, from How Dante:
Meeting with Mike [Holmes, my therapist] the next week, I told him about the test of the gluttons’ repentance. The pilgrim watches some penitent gluttons standing under another fruit tree dripping with water, jumping up and down like children begging for candy. Then, after hearing God’s voice inside the tree speak to them, they go away, says Dante, “as if enlightened.” They obey the authority of God’s voice, not the commands of their cravings. They hunger more for righteousness than for food.
“This is where I need to be in this situation with my family,” I said. “I’m so impatient. I want things to be fixed right now. I don’t want to wait on God.”
“God is teaching you patience,” Mike said. “Learning to wait on him and let things play out according to his plan is part of your healing. Your role is to keep using those tools you have to keep yourself focused on the truth of things, and letting truth inform your emotions.”
“And remembering that I am in control.”
“Yes. And don’t forget that this thing with your family might never be fixed,” he continued. “The point is, you are being fixed, and you’re being fixed by learning to satisfy that hunger within you by turning to God.”
And now, in God’s time, the fix arrived — not the fix with the whole family, but with my dear father, whose love I most needed and wanted.
In bed later, I was reading from Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, and came across this passage about a book Tertullian (160-220) wrote on patience. Wilken writes:
The chief example of patience, however, is “God himself,” and Tertullian begins his treatise with a discussion of divine patience. God scatters light across the world to the just and the unjust, he allows the earth to yield fruit to the worthy and unworthy, he bears the sins and wrongdoing of men, he restrains his wrath as evil men go about their life oblivious to God. The most visible sign of God’s patience, however, is the Incarnation. For God allowed himself to be conceived in the womb of a woman and waited patiently for the months to pass before the birth of Christ. When God is born as a human being he patiently underwent the various stages of childhood and adolescence leading to maturity. And when Christ reached adulthood he did not rush to be recognized and even allowed himself to be baptized by his own servant. The supreme example of patience was Christ’s passion, says Tertullian, an observation that was echoed centuries later by Augustine in a sermon on the Lord’s Passion. “The passion of our Lord,” he wrote, “is a lesson in patience.” All this shows, says Tertullian, that “it is God’s nature to be patient.” Conversely, impatience becomes the primal sin, and the chief example of impatience is the devil. “Who,” says Tertullian, ever committed adultery “without the impatience of lust.”
Reading this, I realized that the debilitating anger I carried in my heart over injustice within my family had been stoked by impatience. Wilken continues:
For Tertullian, the singular mark of patience is not endurance or fortitude but hope. To be impatient, says Tertullian, is to live without hope. Patience is grounded in the Resurrection. It is life oriented toward a future that is God’s doing, and its sign is longing, not so much to be released from the ills of the present, but in anticipation of the good to come. Hence patience becomes the key to the other virtues, including love, which can never be learned, he says, “without the exercise of patience.”
I am here to testify to the truth of this. How Dante Can Save Your Life is part of the testimony, and what happened this past weekend is evidence of the fruits of patience.