This cold and dreary season is a time of waiting. Snow has grown stale, and we’re waiting for the flowers to bud; the joy of Christmas has passed, and we’re waiting for the vitality of Easter. Yet the Church reminds us that this Ordinary Time between great feasts is precisely the time for the spiritual growth that flows from delving more deeply into the mystery of Christ. Thankfully, even the tedium of waiting itself can contribute to our spiritual life! To see how, we need look no further than the virtue of longanimity.
Longanimity vs. patience
“Longaniminimi-what?” you might ask. Exactly. In an instant age when Amazon can deliver anything I want before I know I want it, this virtue has fallen out of fashion. Sometimes translated as “long-suffering,” longanimitas is a virtue similar to patience—but St. Thomas Aquinas’s keen and careful distinction between these two virtues reveals some precious pearls of wisdom.
In his Summa theologiae, St. Thomas holds that longanimity and patience both deal with enduring difficulties for the sake of a good. But patience focuses on the difficulties, whereas longanimity focuses on the good. Patience steels the soul, helping a person bear hardships serenely—like a patient mother responds calmly to the foibles of her toddler, over and over again. Meanwhile, longanimity directs the soul towards a good for which we yearn, specifically a good that’s been a long time coming. So longanimity is a virtue for those who wait: it entails steadfastness in hopefully awaiting a long-delayed good.
Oddly, after differentiating the virtues, St. Thomas draws them together again: the exercise of longanimity will always require patience too, he says, because “the very delay of the good we hope for is of a nature to cause sorrow.” He quotes Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Longanimity is waiting in hope, but it also requires patience to fortify the soul against the difficulty of waiting itself.
Waiting and the Christian life
What does all this mean for us? First, longanimity beautifully acknowledges and validates the suffering of those who wait. God knows the human heart and recognizes that a long delay in attaining our deepest desires is a genuine cause of sorrow, silent and unobserved though it may be. We all have unanswered prayers: some of us wait in hope for a spouse, others for children, others for entrance to religious life, others for a diagnosis or a cure, others to secure a job, others to pay a debt, others to find the right home. In the midst of uncertainty, we can pray for the virtue of longanimity to strengthen our souls and guard us against despair. For a beautiful reflection on the sorrow of waiting—and the joy of the Lord—I recommend Christina Jaloway’s talk, “The Waiting is the Cross.” She speaks mainly to women who wait, but has much to offer men as well.
Second, longanimity points us beyond ourselves to God. The greatest good we all yearn for is union with God, and Christian hope is founded on the promise that He will fulfill this desire. The Christian life, then, is a matter of waiting for God. As the ten bridesmaids of St. Matthew’s Gospel demonstrate, the proper attitude of the Christian is one of watching and waiting in hope, lamps filled with oil (Matt. 25:1-13).
In her book Waiting for God, Simone Weil notes that we can’t get to heaven on our own:
We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up easily.
Till then, we wait:
The attitude that brings about salvation is not like any form of activity…It is the waiting or attentive and faithful immobility that lasts indefinitely and cannot be shaken.
Finally, longanimity reminds us that God waits for us too. In a meditation on the Cross, St. Thomas follows St. Augustine in linking different parts of the wooden structure of the Cross to different virtues. Longanimity? That, he says, is represented by the vertical wooden beam—strong and immobile, it stands fast but points directly towards heaven. In his earthly life, Christ bore patiently the weakness and incomprehension of those surrounding him, and his Cross shows us that he also waits for us to lift our gaze heavenward, as Weil suggests. Through grace, the divine gaze will one day meet our own and the mutual waiting will be replaced by the mutual indwelling of love.