The Wisdom of Being a Patient Pilgrim

The phrase “patient pilgrim” is attributed to Blaise Pascal, the great scientist, theologian, and philosopher of seventeenth century France. It was a favorite theme for Simone Weil and implied in the title of her book, Waiting On God. There are enough difficulties, setbacks, problems, and frustrations in life to make any of us angry. The “patient pilgrim,” on the other hand, says, “Don’t be angry, be patient.”

Patience, contrary to popular sentiment, is by no means a passive virtue. Much inner strength is required not to become angry in the face of injustice, or when things are not going our way. A patient person is one of character, though it might not be prudent to push him too far. “Beware the fury of a patient man,” warned the poet John Dryden. Patience allows us to maintain peace of mind in the midst of life’s continuing headaches and heartaches. It helps us to persevere in directing our energies toward positive goals in the midst of persistent disappointments, restrictions, and hardships. It teaches us composure when a crisis occurs, and assists us to maintain our equanimity in the face of innumerable irritations that crop up from time to time. Patience allows us to abide foolishness without becoming angry and to endure tedium without becoming bored.

Therefore, patience can be related to fortitude, or courage. Aristotle believed that patience is so much like fortitude that she seems to be either her sister or her daughter. Patience is the calmer face of courage that proves its value over time. Anger can burn itself out in a display of useless dissipation. Patience is the quiet glow that looks forward to productive action.

The patience of Job is one of the most moving testimonies we have of the indomitable quality of the human spirit. Job illustrates the concentrated strength that patience can possess. Not to be crushed under the weight of unimaginable suffering without despairing epitomizes the positive power of patience. Despair is not an option for the patient pilgrim.

Enrico Caruso was the most admired Italian operatic singer of his time. In his repertoire, which included forty-three operas, he displayed a dramatic vocal technique that was unequalled in variety and scope. Yet his musical prowess may pale when contrasted with the patient courage of his mother. Enrico, the eighteenth child born to Mrs. Anna (Baldini) Caruso, was her first to survive infancy. Patience can be undaunted. Edwin Kowalik said that he knew he was destined to play the piano the first time he touched one. But he became permanently blind as the result of a fall when he was seven years of age. After learning music in Braille, tragedy struck a second time when he lost his memory as a result of an automobile accident. He eventually recovered his memory and went on to become an internationally acclaimed concert pianist who also transcribed into the Braille system the complete works of Frederic Chopin.

Patience is hopeful. Anger tends to exhaust itself in the moment. Patience sits on the rock of fortitude, but its gaze is toward the skies. “How poor are they that have not patience!” wrote Shakespeare in Othello, “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” Anger does not mend or heal. It compounds problems. There are times when all we can do is wait and hope, in circumstances when patience and time can do far more good than power and passion. In this regard, patience is also sensible and practical, as a Dutch proverb advises, “A handful of patience is worth a bushel of brains.”

In addition, patience is modest and unassuming. On July 23, 1863, Sonya Tolstoy wrote a single underscored word in her diary— patience. She knew at that moment, at nineteen years of age and in the first year of her marriage, that her husband—the great novelist, Leo Tolstoy—was incapable of attending to practical matters. As a consequence, she understood that the full responsibility for managing their vast households in Yasnaya Polyana and in Moscow would fall to her. Little did she realize at that time how much more patience she would need throughout her forty-eight-year marriage that produced thirteen children and trials that would have tested the patience of a saint.

The following year, 1864, Count Tolstoy began working on his masterpiece, War and Peace. For the next twenty years, until one of her daughters shared this chore with her, Sonya made fair copies of her husband’s manuscript. It is reported that she copied the entire novel seven times, a task made even more daunting because her husband’s handwriting was barely legible and scrawled with erasures and lines of script that often crisscrossed in various directions. Yet she rarely knocked on his door for help and never complained. The novel was barely half-finished when Sonya began to realize that it would be a truly extraordinary work, and took great joy in performing her modest role as copyist.

Patience can be an inspiration. Leo Tolstoy was deeply influenced by his wife’s virtuous example. Sonya was, without any exaggeration, the good wife of Scripture. Though she did remain in the background personally, her influence can be seen in many of her husband’s works. According to one researcher, “Sonya made her contribution to all of Leo’s great women characters.”

Without the heroic patience displayed by Anna Caruso, Edwin Kowalik, and Sonya Tolstay, the world might have been deprived of certain great achievements in music and in literature. Patience, therefore, is resourceful, always ready to open a new door when one has been closed. When the moment at hand seems fraught with invincible difficulties, the patient pilgrim finds ways to discover new vistas and surprising benefactions.

Anger is counted as the third most deadly of the Deadly Sins. This is not the justifiable anger that Christ expressed over the money lenders who were occupying the Synagogue to ply their business. The deadly variety is so named because it can easily escalate to the point of overkill. This kind of anger does not know how to apply the brakes. That being the case, it has the capacity to generate more anger in other people.

Finally, the patient pilgrim is an ambassador of peace. And what wondrous things can emerge from the fertile soil that he provides! In Luke 21:19 we are told that through patience we will possess our souls. The corollary is that in anger, we are in danger of losing our souls. Let us imitate the patient pilgrim and gain our souls.