Advent Reflections 2: Penitence and Patience – Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Patience, Hard Thing!”
Christmas is a joyous season, for love, fellowship, giving, and relaxation – or at least we recognize that it ought to be, even if we get caught up in the snarls of everyday life, trying to shape impossible expectations, family relationships, and Christmas shopping into something recognizably festive. Advent strikes a different note. Advent is about anticipation, but also penitence – and patience.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) The penitent heart cries to God, “Help!” For only God can remake us – but He has indeed promised to do His redeeming work in every heart that turns to Him.
In His own time, and in His way. Penitence means letting go of “having it our way,” and letting God have it His way. How hard that is, sometimes!
“Patience, Hard Thing! ” - Gerard Manley Hopkins
Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.
“Patience who asks / Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks; / To do without, take tosses, and obey.” We are called to bear our cross, whatever it may be. When we are called to be patient, we may instead wish that we had war and wounds to deal with: conflicts and struggles that demand action. Instead, our task may be to graciously “do without, take tosses, and obey.” And in that acceptance of our given task, true patience sets down its roots.
Patience as heart’s ivy – covering over our “ruins of wrecked past purpose”; God may frustrate our plans, if they are not according to His will for us. The giving up of self-will can be agonizing: “We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills / To bruise them dearer.” Isn’t it enough to recognize that we were wrong? Do we really have to give up everything to God? Can’t we still have it our own way, at least sometimes? No?
Yet this is what grace is: God can, and will, do the transforming work that we cannot do for ourselves, when we ask Him to help us: “Yet the rebellious wills / Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.” Hopkins shows us that we may not feel obedient, but we can be obedient even so.
Patience, hard thing! But what is the result of patience? “And where is he who more and more distils / Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills / His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.” We know how bees make honey. The patient bees visit flower after flower, bringing back the tiny grains of pollen to the hive; grain by grain, ever so slowly, the honey forms and, hidden within the hive, the crisp combs fill with its delicious sweetness.