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To Be Patient in an Emergency

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. —John 19:28-29

To be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.

Over the last year, I’ve thought often of a scene at the end of The Sound of Music: Nazi soldiers begin banging on the door of the abbey where the von Trapp family has taken shelter, and one of the nuns hurries to the door in her fright. But she is quickly and quietly corrected by Mother Abbess, who tells her to slow down—if she opened the door too hastily, looking flustered, the soldiers would immediately know they had found the family.

So she stops, breathes, and walks calmly to the door.


In any emergency, to abide with patience in our need is to take the blessed middle path between the near-irresistable offers of denial on the one hand and domination on the other. It takes enormous effort not to either freeze or fight, because each of these ensnaring alternatives to patience are survival instincts, complete with their own internal logic: If I could need less right now, if I could shut down all systems not essential to my survival, then I might escape. Or, if I could overtake my circumstances by brute force, then I might escape.

In order to survive, I must become less. Or, I must become more.

But Jesus is not trying to survive. “I am thirsty,” he says, and by saying this, what else does he say?

“I am still here. You are still here. I am thirsty with you.

This thirst we share, it is not a liability. This thirst we share, it is not a license to kill. This thirst we share, it is a narrow passage to an open space Called acceptance, repentance, patience, gratitude, returning, rest.”


But what do I do, I can hear myself asking, when the emergency seems to last forever?

When the din of violence and chaos reaches a critical threshhold—then exceeds that threshhold the very next day? When the ugly fact is that to freeze or to fight, to deny or to dominate, are my only alternatives to heart-wrenching pain? When all the patience in the world won’t change a thing?

As the nun rushes in her fright to answer the door, the correction of Mother Abbess holds within it more than mere tactical advice. Latent in her correction is a reminder to the nun that she has access to patience, to presence, to returning and rest, even and especially in the moment of her greatest need. The soldiers banging on the door, compelled to follow the orders of denial and dominance on the grounds of the promise never to need again, forfeited their access as a rite of passage. The alluring daydream of power, large-scale operation that it is, requires such forfeitures as routine maintenance.

The soldiers do not know that they are thirsty.

They do not know where they are or who is there with them. And they dare not wonder too much about it, because to do so would be to risk losing their fictional moral license to raid an abbey.

In mustering up her patience, the nun does not acquire a superpower to fundamentally change the situation. But her patience does expose the truth of that situation: the truth of shared human need, the soldiers’ denial of that need, and the futility of their resulting violence. Whenever a human being demonstrates their access to this patience, this presence, this returning and rest, God lavishly holds out through them the possibility of such returning to every other soul in their presence.

“I am thirsty,” Jesus says, and we feel our dry tongues against the back of our teeth.

“Abide in me, and the trial will be no less terrible, the emergency no less severe, but the difference will be that you will stay here. You will stay with me. And you will know that you are thirsty.”

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