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Breaking Open the Ordinary

By Sandy Prather


Patience and compassion


I recently spent the better part of a morning sitting in the reception area of a dentist’s office. My daughter was having a root canal done and, as her designated driver, I brought a good book with me and was prepared to wait. Instead of reading, however, I found myself caught up in the activities around me. It was a busy office and, over the course of the several hours, with increasing admiration, I watched the receptionist as she went about her job.

With ease, good humour and professionalism, she handled her tasks: welcoming patients; fielding phone calls; making appointments; discussing treatment plans. What especially impressed me, however, was her manner with people. Obviously aware that visits to the dentist’s office can be fraught with anxiety for many, she spoke to each one with gentleness and compassion. She was patient in answering questions, calming anxieties, and reassuring people about procedures and treatments. Never once did she rush or in any way imply that she had other things to do.

I appreciated that. It reminded me of something a friend of mine had said about her oncologist. She and her husband were meeting him for a consult about some test results. The results were not good and the news was grim. But the oncologist, my friend reported, had been wonderful. While she and her husband sat in shock trying to assimilate the news, the doctor simply sat in silence with them. Then, slowly, gently and with infinite patience, he answered all their questions, telling them to take their time and never once appearing rushed. It was, she noted, a real experience of compassion.

Such experiences highlight the connection between compassion and patience. In a very concrete way, patience is an essential component of compassion, so much so that when we lack patience with people, we lack compassion for them. How so?

The very words themselves give us a clue. Etymologically, compassion and patience/impatience derive from the same Latin root: pati, meaning “to suffer.” The prefix com means “with,” while the prefix im, tellingly, means, “not.” Literally, compassion means, “to suffer with,” while impatience means, “not suffer.”

Impatience, then, is an inability to “suffer” something. With regard to events, it manifests itself as dissatisfaction with the present moment, the way things actually are. When we are waiting for something to happen or for something or someone to arrive, we exist in an in-between time. This difference between the now and the not-yet produces a tension in us, one that can be endured patiently or impatiently. We can “suffer” with equanimity, accepting the moment and appreciating the time things take, or we feel frustrated and try to hurry things along, unable to sit with the tension of the moment.

The same dynamic occurs when we are impatient with people: we are unable to sit with them in their reality. How often have we made a judgment that a change is needed in someone’s life and we are anxious for it to happen? We see clearly what needs to be done and in our eagerness for them to take next step, or, conversely, our frustration that they seem to be “stuck,” we end up impatient, trying to hurry them along. We literally are unable to sit with them in their current reality. We want change, we want it now, and our compassion goes out the window.

Compassionate people are the most patient ones in that they are able to sit with us in our reality. I think of a priest in our diocese known for his compassion. People flock to him with their troubles, sorrows and struggles. They come because he always has time for them and he listens with kindness. But there is another aspect to his listening: he doesn’t try to fix or change them. He doesn’t get exasperated when they continue to make the same mistakes or fail to follow their own best instincts. Instead, he accepts them as they are and walks with them for as long as it takes. He is patient and, for this, he is known for his compassion.

It is the way of our God. Scripture tells us God is compassionate and patient: steadfast and enduring is the way they put it. God, we are told, is willing to wait for us for many an hour and many a day, willing to sit with us in our suffering, struggle with us in our turmoil and wait patiently while we grow, fail and grow again. It is the way of Jesus, who walks with people, hears their stories and engages them in relationship even as he waits patiently for conversion. We have a God who is willing to wait with and for us, but the question is, are we willing to wait for each other?

We are asked to be patient not only as individuals but as a church. We speak of being a compassionate church, but can we say that we are a patient church? As a church, do we accept people as they are and are we willing to accompany them in their reality? Are we not more likely to demand that they change in order to fit our reality?

It is something to consider. Pope Francis has pointed out that the church, in being with people, needs to, “accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as they progressively occur,” (Evanglii Gaudium 44). Such patience is, he says, a necessary component part of evangelizing: “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time,” he writes (EG 24).

A dental receptionist listens to and responds to her clients’ needs and fears; an oncologist takes the time to sit with his patient and answer their questions; a church goes out and walks with men and women in their brokenness and suffering. In their patience is their compassion.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.