"Patience is only a part": April 3 pastoral reflection from Bishop Harris

April 3, 2020

These are the times that try our souls.
          - Paraphrase of Thomas Paine quote

Guide My Feet Lord, while I run this race, 
For I don’t want to run this race in vain
          - Black Spiritual

Often in times like these of fear, disappointment, struggle and confusion, my mother would repeat the words from black spirituals, Scripture and tried-and-true platitudes.  She did not distinguish between their sources.  Indeed, growing up, I thought they were all from the Bible, because she rolled one into another, and said them emphatically, with the conviction of faith; and at times she told me they were from the Bible. 

I remember certain sayings she particularly used as her “scriptures.”  When I asked for something, she would say, “God bless the child that’s got his own."  As an adult, I learned that that saying was not from the Bible, but from a song written and sung by the jazz singer Billie Holiday.  When she wanted me to clean my room or wash dishes and such, she would say, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness." That platitude can be traced to ancient Babylonian and Hebrew texts before and beyond the Bible.  To me, that particular saying truly sounded "biblical," until I discovered its origins.  Also, John Wesley included that phrase in a 1778 sermon, which made it a little closer to a religious saying.

Another very familiar saying she often quoted comes to me now, as we are requested to be responsibly and safely sheltering at home, with the exception of those providing essential services. Again I wish to acknowledge my thankfulness and respect for those on the front lines of dealing with COVID-19 and putting themselves at risk:  First responders, medical and scientific research personnel, state and local governments, the civil service and employees of other essential services still at work.  

Now, as I am isolated, and bereft of community, regular public worship and the sacraments, with no certain date of life resuming in the company of others, this familiar saying echoes inside me:  "Patience is a virtue.”  This, again, is not in the Bible but is from the third century BCE Roman orator and senator, Cato the Elder. 

To hold patience as a virtue, that is, a high moral and desirable standard of behavior, is commendable and helpful for individuals and society in general.  I think it is only a part of what is necessary in these difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I deeply yearn for corporate liturgy and the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, and to go about again in the world, embracing others.  Waiting for the time when again I can engage with others and the real presence of Christ in bread and wine, I think patience is only a part of what is required of me.  Patience is only a part of what I need; being patient is only part of what I think I should be.

Over the past few weeks I have watched and participated in liturgies of the Eucharist online, but I find a difference within me compared to when I participate in other liturgies such as the Book of Common Prayer Daily Offices of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline.  I deeply feel in these services the power of prayer, song and connection with others around the Anglican Communion and the globe.

But I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with online Eucharists even though I have what is traditionally called a “high church” theology on the sacraments and liturgy.  The sacrament of the Eucharist is vital to me:  As St. Paul wrote, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)  Yet viewing and seeking to participate in online eucharistic liturgies, I feel restrained and constrained.  Holy Eucharist is the most sacred and most intimate liturgy. 

In the elements of communion we are offered spiritual intimacy with God and each other.  It is God’s grace coming to us, and in us, to empower us to go out into the world to proclaim and serve God. It truly is communal in its essence, which is why a priest may not celebrate Eucharist alone; Christ’s presence in bread and wine is a divine manifestation with humanity, not just the individual.  It is not magic; it is the presence of the Holy One in us.  But this is my own struggle.  I realize many disagree with me, and find comfort, solace and strength from online Eucharists, and I am thankful for that, even if I don’t quite experience it online as others do.

That is why I know patience is only part of what is required of me.  Waiting patiently for this time to pass is not enough. 

What I believe is required of me, especially as we approach Holy Week, Easter and the weeks beyond, is endurance.  While I am bereft of sacrament and community, endurance requires I process the loneliness and isolation within me, without giving way to it, in examining what truly is foundational and what principles and values I hold.  To ask myself:  Is this what God desires; is this following Jesus?  To endure means I must sustain and lean into my trust in God and God’s love to continue in this time.  

Endurance is more than being patient and waiting; it is not passive but active engagement with a situation.  During this pandemic, endurance demands spiritual stamina, which invites me to enter more deeply into prayer, Scripture, hymns, stories of the saints and the vast resources of spiritual writing through the ages. Endurance comes from realizing I am a part of something beyond myself and beyond this frightening season.

Endurance.  As the Apostle Paul wrote: “But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way by great endurance, in afflictions, hardship, calamities…  as dying and behold we live, …as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:4,9-10 NRSV)

A dear longtime friend of mine shared with me the words that follow below, which give her more hope and endurance during this pandemic.  I also think these words of Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre echo what St. Paul wrote, a poetic inspiration during the COVID-19 crisis:

Nothing Left

And when there is nothing left to do but live,
let us retire the noise,
and build a home inside the stillness.

Grab a wrench and unfasten the parts of you
that have become mechanical;
rest your weary limbs in the bed of anomaly.

the machine is powering down.
You can hear the birds when the gears aren’t grinding.

When there is nothing left to do but live,
make a vacation of your body;
each part explored, a stamp on your passport.

Begin with your heart, maybe?
Crawl inside and sightsee,
ask difficult questions about who it is, and why.

the machine is powering down.
You can hear yourself when the gears aren’t grinding.

When there is nothing left to do but live,
simply show up;
that has always been enough.

And together in this sudden strangeness,
radical imagination will run wild;
tomorrow being built today.

Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris