Grateful to feature the second of two pieces from the forthcoming book by Stanley Hauerwas entitled The Character of Virture. The previous piece, Kindness, can be found here. What do you get when a world-renowned theologian writes letters to his god-son? This...
I want to recommend to you the virtue of patience, which I take to be one of the central virtues for Christians. But before I say more, I need to be as candid with you as I can. No virtue is more important to me than the virtue of patience. Yet I’m one of the most impatient people you’ll ever meet.
I’m always feeling impatient, wanting to get things done. I’m a person with great energy, which leads me to think it’s always better to do something than to do nothing. I felt this way even when I was young. When my parents gave me small jobs, what we called “chores,” I wanted to get the first one done quickly in order to get on to the next one, which I would also do quickly.
I was fortunate to be formed by habits that should have made me more patient than I am. I was brought up to be a bricklayer. To learn to lay bricks—at least, to learn to lay bricks well—takes time. But learning to lay brick is just one way to learn to be patient. You’ll discover patience through learning to read, playing games, and countless other activities.
Patience is the habit of time because time is the incarnation of habit. Habits may become second nature to us, but we need to remember how fundamental they are for determining who we are.
Our bodies beg to be formed by habits, so it’s very important that we are formed well early on. I’m sure, for example, that the habits I learned by laying brick continue to shape my work as a teacher and theologian. I work hard and I hope well, but I also continue to work too much in a hurry. I want to change the world, and I rush because I arrogantly think that “my work” is important for the changes I desire to see. Yet, as I’ve mentioned, impatient though I may be, I’m sure no virtue is more important for learning to be a Christian than patience.
My point here is that you will be brought up in the church, and you will be frustrated by the people who make up the church. You may even become as angry as I am with other Christians. But you must also be patient, which means you must be as ready to forgive as to be forgiven. The community necessary to be the church takes time—time determined by patience. You’ll be frustrated by the time it takes for people to be who God would have us be, but remember that God has given us all the time in the world so that we might be patient with one another.
Patience, at least the kind of patience I’ve tried to suggest is the very heart of God, seems like a pretty heavy burden to put on a child. But if you think about it, it’s also a pretty heavy burden to put on someone as impatient as I am. Which is just a way of reminding us both that the virtues aren’t recommendations for individual achievement. The truth is that we can be patient only through being made patient through the patient love of others. That is the love I see surrounding you, making it possible for you to begin to acquire patience.
I say this because, as I have suggested with the other virtues, patience isn’t “foreign” to our nature. We were created to be patient because, as I noted earlier, we are bodily creatures. As you grow older, you’ll notice that you’ll want to do many things you see older children and adults doing. And you’ll be frustrated because often you won’t be able to do what they do so effortlessly. This kind of competence will require you to practice so that you will acquire the skills, the habits that are necessary to do what they do. Practice is just another name for patience.
One of the practices of patience I hope you’ll want to develop is called baseball. Baseball is America’s greatest gift to civilization. It is a slow game of failure. If you win half the time, that’s considered very good. Not only that, but a game takes nine innings, and the season is very long. During a game it often seems that little is happening. Of course, this is true only for those who don’t understand the game. It takes extended training in patience to be a baseball fan because you must acquire the habits that allow you to see how compelling and beautiful the game is. But I hope that you’ll want to do more than learn to watch baseball. I hope you’ll want to play baseball. Learning to catch and hit is very hard, but having learned to do both will make you happy.
As I’ve suggested, our very bodies were given to us so that we might learn to be patient.
I’m acutely aware that our bodies were given us to teach us patience because I am, as I mentioned at the beginning of this letter, growing old. I simply can’t do what I once did, though I’m still trying to play baseball—at least I’m still trying to play church softball. In doing so, I’m having to learn how to be patient with myself, which isn’t easy. So, as we grow older together, I hope you’ll help me learn to be patient.
I look forward to our learning how to be patient with one another. Impatiently yours,
Excerpted from The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson, by Stanley Hauerwas. © 2018 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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