The Word of God, which in the previous talk invited us to forgive offences, now becomes the necessary premiss to be able to bear the wrongs of others patiently. However, when we speak about bearing the wrongs of others, it is necessary to engage in a clarification. Whereas in spoken language the verb ‘to bear’ has acquired a negative and rather passive colouring (meaning ‘to be under a burden’ that one cannot avoid), in its Greek etymology it brings with it an active and positive meaning. It is standing in front of someone or something with resolution, bearing a burden without difficulty, remaining steady, and resisting with the courage of patience. Patience is also the ability to suffer. It is the aptitude of a strong person when faced with an enemy, adversity or pain.
In Holy Scripture, bearing things is first and foremost specific to God. It is the story of the patience of God towards man and His bearing the wrongs of His people, ‘who had a stiff neck’ (cf. Dt 9:6-13; Jer 17:23; Ez 3:7). It is the story of the persevering faithfulness of God to an unfaithful people. This is a patience that is not in the least impassiveness, but, rather, it is ‘the long breath of His passion’, a love that accepts suffering by waiting for the times of man, for his conversion. ‘The Lord is not slow to do what he has promised, as some think. Indeed, he is patient with you, because he does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants all to turn away from their sins’ (2Pt 3:8-9). It is patience that is also suffering when faced with the sin of man: ‘How long will this wicked community grumble against me?’, God said to Moses and Aaron (Nu 14:27). ‘He restrained his anger often, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again’ (Ps 78:35-39).
In Christ, and especially during the days of his passion and death, the patience of God reached its summit because it took into account the weakness and the inadequacy of man. A patience that also becomes suffering faced with the hardness of man’s heart: ‘O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?’ (Mk 9:19; Mt17:17; Lk 9:41). A Christian, therefore, is also called – following the example of God and Jesus our teacher – to bear the burden of his or her brethren. St. Paul wrote to the community of Thessalonica: ‘May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ’ (2Th 3:5); he told the Christians of Ephesus that they should live ‘forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:1-3); and he told the believers of Colossae to live: ‘forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other’ (Col 3:13). Forgiveness and bearing wrongs thus became the identifying elements of the first Christian communities.
After clarifying the very variegated meaning of the verb ‘to bear’, it is now advisable to reflect on the term ‘wrong’ as well. It refers to someone or something that provokes suffering, difficulty, what is burdensome. Here one can remember the friends of Job who came to comfort him because he was weighed down by all kinds of misfortunes and illnesses. They adjudged him blameworthy because of his maladies, whereas he, certain of his faithfulness to God, sent them away very irritated: ‘I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all’ (Jb 16:2). Indeed, for him they had become a new burden and a new wrong. The commitment to bearing wrongs, for a Christian, must thus embody one of the very many faces of love – charity which ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’; which ‘does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful’ (1Cor 13:5-7). ‘Reducing the burdens’ of a person or of a community thus constitutes a brilliant and creative way of carrying out this seventh work of spiritual mercy. This is something that Paul, the apostle of nations, understood very well when, in his letter to the Christian community of Rome, at the centre of chapter XII, he revealed the most effective secret for bearing people who do you wrong. He employed the following valuable formula: ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Rm 12:21), with a smile on one’s lips and the pleasant possibility of seeing in every brother the marvellous iris of the eyes of Jesus, and, as a consequence, the face itself of God.
A few reflections now on patience which, indeed, is an indispensable aptitude in making the bearing of wrongs an act of love. In the Christian tradition, patience has always been seen as a virtue, even the ‘greatest virtue’ (Tertullian, De Patientia 1,7). For Cyprian, it was essential to the Christian life: ‘The fact of being Christian is a good that belongs to faith and hope. But for hope and faith to give their fruits, one must have patience’ (De bono patientiae, XIII). Gregory the Great linked Christian perfection to patience: ‘The person who allows himself to be downcast because of the inequity of others is not very strong. He who does not know how to bear adversity; it is as though he killed himself with the sword of his own pusillanimity. From patience is born perfection. Indeed, he who does not lose his patience because of the imperfections of his neighbour is truly perfect. He who becomes impatient about the defects of other people, has in this the proof that he is still imperfect’ (Moralia, 5,33).
Today, however, patience has lost a great deal of its attraction: our hurried times lead people to impatience, to not postponing things, to ‘everything and immediately’, and to possession that gives no room to waiting. The slow maturing of things is felt to be intolerable, forgetting a famous Italian saying that states: ‘trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit’. The modern world seems to have forgotten the virtue of patience. At the same time, however, one should realistically recognise that patience is not always a virtue, just as impatience is not always a non-virtue. A patience that inhibits the human capacity (of an individual as of a people) to say ‘no’ to the continuation of an abuse, of violence, of abuse, of exploitation, is a perversion of patience which becomes the accomplice of injustice and is neither human nor evangelical. For this reason, one should remember the ‘right to anger’ which dares to say and cry out ‘that’s enough’, as God does with injustices that rage in the world and in relation to which the prophets made themselves ministers; as Jesus did when he cried out his invective against religious men: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you all to escape being sentenced to hell?’ (Mt 23:13-36) or when he cast out of the temple the buyers and sellers and threw over the tables of the moneychangers: ‘making a whip of cords, he drove them all…out of the temple…he poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables’ (Jn 2:13-15).
In conclusion, one can therefore affirm that patience is an art and a virtue that has nothing to do with enduing things passively. Remembering, as well, that the exercise of bearing the wrongs of others with patience will always make us better and stronger. As an Italian proverb says: ‘you reach everything with patience’. In addition, a Christian must remember that when he or she is vexed by irritating people or unpleasant events, he or she is in the condition of sharing in the cross of Christ. For this reason, he or she is consoled by the Lord. This is a consolation that produces in him or her the strength of patience and ignites hope, which is the certainty of eternal life. One can affirm, therefore, that the patient bearing of wrongs receives its strength and its support from the virtue of hope and requires perseverance: ‘he who endures to the end will be saved’ (Mk 13:13). It is also said of God that He holds back his ire, His punishment, because He is benign, patient, and wants to lead us to repentance. There only remains to us, therefore, to clothe ourselves, as St. Paul exhorts us, in ‘compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience, forbearing one another…forgiving each other’ (Col 3:12). Only burning patience will lead us to the achievement of a splendid happiness. Khalil Gibran wrote: ‘When I planted my pain in the field of patience, I gathered the fruit of happiness’. Not forgetting that ‘a moment of patience can avoid a great disaster. Whereas a moment of impatience can ruin an entire life’.
Father Rosario Messina