Saturday, May 30, 2015

Patience not passivity

I recently read a children's book from 1946 called The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. I am interested in children's literature, among other reasons, because of its influence on adults. In any case, in this story, a 13-year-old named Maria goes with her governess, Miss Heliotrope, to live with her uncle on his estate in the West Country. Early on, the village parson and several wise animals,  a dog (who turns out to be a lion--several years before Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and a cat, advise Maria to be patient and curb her troubling "feminine curiosity." This involves sitting and waiting quietly to be asked, for instance, to tour the estate's kitchens and other areas. Maria obeys, virtue is rewarded and Maria's curiosity satisfied--without annoying anyone in the process.

The book, which relies on the page-turning curiosity of its mostly female readers, and on Maria having the pluck to follow where her questions lead, soon drops the theme of cultivating passivity. However, I continued to ponder it, and the way passivity is often confused with patience.

Patience is not one of the fruits of the spirit contemporary Quakers emphasize. Our "p" is primarily for peace--more precisely peace-making, and we celebrate active virtues: cultivating simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality in how we live. Sitting patiently and waiting for other people to initiate change has not been part of our tradition.

It's important, however, I think, not to confuse patience with passivity. It seems to me Biblical patience has little to do with sitting quietly. The  patience of Job had everything to do with enduring suffering, not basking in beatific stillness as he laid on the dung heap, covered in sores.  Job actively cursed God, and God told the people criticizing Job for doing that that Job was right, that nobody deserved the kind of suffering he'd endured.

Early Quakers like  Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, who were imprisoned in Malta by the Inquisition for preaching up the Quaker word in a Catholic region, also don't fit a model of serene and saintly acceptance that we tend to associate with patience. They endured imprisonment--but they also fought back against it. Evans and Cheevers mounted a hunger strike in prison, complained vocally and resentfully about their abusive treatment and argued vigorously to refute both the theology and the threats of priests--but had the patience to resist trading freedom for, say, kissing the crucifix or recanting their Quaker testimony.

Malta cell of Evans and Cheevers

They had Biblical patience, a willingness to endure the consequences of following leadings, leadings that brought them into clashes with worldly authorities. Their patience was a fruit of activity, not passivity, and it was active in itself.

One of the earlier, lost meanings of being a "plain" people that the Quakers adopted as a label was "plaint" or complaint. The early Quakers were not simply plain because they had leveled their religion from the "airy" heights of the Anglicans or because they lived simply, but because they were people of the plaint--people with complaints--people who had suffered. They were patient but they weren't complaisant. Their patience in suffering was active and vocal, an incessant cry against the way they were treated. Their patience was accompanied by calls, again and again, for social justice.

This kind of patience,  a robust and even defiant willingness to endure the suffering brought on by following leadings, is a supernatural fruit of the spirit. The flesh shrinks from imprisonment, torture and want, the soul from the shame and censure that defying authority elicits in other people. This patience emerges not through passivity but through active immersion in the life of prayer and attention to spirit. Why does it well up during some periods and not others? Why do we seem to have so little of it today?

No comments: