Patience Hath A Perfect Work
The saying comes from St. James, from his epistle as found in the Douay-Rheims Bible (Jas 1:4). In the King James Version, the phrase appears as a mild command with the virtue personified: “let patience have her perfect work.” The editors of the Revised Standard, following the Greek manuscripts, left the poetry aside: “let steadfastness have its full effect.” Only St. Jerome’s Latin has the same proverbial form as the Douay-Rheims: patientia opus perfectum habet. The advantage of seeing the phrase as an affirmation—patience hath a perfect work—is that it prompts us to wonder just what it may mean. What is the work of patience? And in what does its perfection consist?
The Latin root—to suffer—sheds some light. Patience is plainly a disposition to suffer well. We regularly speak of waiting patiently or even of being patient when it is necessary to wait our turn for something. And various outbursts we call acts of impatience when they result from someone having been pushed past the breaking point.
These linguistic clues provide good starting points for reflection. Aquinas saw the virtue as a disposition to bear sorrows occasioned by other people, from what they do to us or fail to do. It may perhaps then be averred that patience is a virtue that enables us to share common works with other people whose freedom is for us a cause of frustration, sorrow, or pain. So, to understand the work of patience, we need to appreciate how hard it is to exercise our freedom, that is, to deliberate and to choose well and then to accomplish the act we have chosen to do.
Even if we ourselves and everyone with whom we shared our life were confirmed in virtue, there would still be plenty of occasions to put patience to the test. Practical reason, after all, is fallible, just as all reason is. And common goods are difficult to achieve, so our various shared endeavors inevitably put us to the test. Moreover, we are perfectly capable of knowing what is to be done and simply failing to do it. Accordingly, the Gospel repeatedly stresses the importance both of mutual forbearance and of common deliberation and free consent, as, for instance, when the Lord declared “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Mt 18:19).
The work of patience is especially necessary when two or three cannot come to agreement or their agreement fails to usher in the due action. Patience then supplies for defects in the exercise of practical reason or prudence. Those defects are manifold.
First, the act of practical reason is made possible by rectitude of appetite. As a person is, so does the end appear to him or her. So, if the appetite is habitually overwhelmed, then the end will appear to be not much more than the attainment of the sensible reality that attracts, whether it be a juicy cheeseburger or a shiny new car. If we are living or working with someone whose appetites have overmastered him, our patience will often be taxed, as his drive for sensible goods thwarts our common action.
Second, practical reason reposes upon experience. The actual work of reasoning that is involved in making a decision to do something connects a general ethical principle to specific circumstances that can be acted upon in light of it. There is a twofold challenge here for the practical reasoner: one on the side of the general principle, the other on the side of the circumstances. Taking the latter first, our knowledge of the circumstances of our possible actions always involves the work of sensation because to choose to act or not to act is to operate upon the world in some way. Even if our choice is to sit still and think or pray silently, we are still choosing on this day, at this hour, in this setting, and so forth. If we are unable to identify our circumstances properly, then we will not be able to apply the general ethical principle fittingly (unless by accident). In the case of most of our actions, our circumstances consist in other people, their characters, their roles, their moods, their current activities or states. To apprise these features of human life requires experience, sometimes a great deal. We can all summon to mind the example of a person who seems consistently incapable of understanding what he ought to about the people he is living and working with; Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins is an especially wry one.
This kind of sensory challenge is a common feature of life. When we are hurried, tired, hungry, or preoccupied, we often make little mistakes of judgment that bring others annoyance or pain. These mistakes typically do not involve malice or even vice. They are, instead, usually the result of the ills to which the flesh is heir. The patient person learns not to judge another person’s character on the basis of these weaker moments, but instead takes the long view and overlooks momentary lapses.
A third obstacle to right practical reasoning is a defect of principle. We do not generally tolerate such defects in friends. A strong disagreement in principle about an important matter tends to lead to a cooling of friendship if not estrangement. With co-workers, neighbors, parishioners, teammates, and especially family members, however, we can find ourselves in permanent or semi-permanent relationships that require us to endure what we cannot change. If we are to work through the difficulties occasioned by our disagreements in principle without succumbing to sorrow or anger, we must exercise a high degree of patience.
The patient person keeps in mind two important rules: that God does not wish for the smoldering wick to be quenched (Mt 12:20) and that we are to be “urgent in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). When both principles are operative, the patient person is even-keeled, testifying to the truth—albeit often silently—while waiting upon Divine Providence to shed light upon the one who errs. And with youth, of course, the patient person exercises an even more willing forbearance, knowing that the most important ethical principles must be long-kneaded in thought if they are to become strongly rooted in mind and heart.
Patience’s work is perfect because it must endure sorrows occasioned by all the many misuses of human freedom, whether stemming from the fallibility of practical reason, disordered passion, immature judgment, or even misapprehension of the good. To see a list of these snares is to be confronted with a mirror: all of us at one time or another, and sometimes for a whole season of life, have been caught in one or more of them. The work of patience, then, must be joined to humility, lest we fail to take the log out of our own eye before working to remove the speck from our brother’s (Mt 7:4-5).
And just as self-knowledge reposes upon the assistance of our friend’s judgment, so too patience. Perhaps the greatest help to patience is compassion—suffering with—for when a friend walks with us, we are better able to persevere in the life of charity. With gratitude to our great friend the apostle, we receive from him a few more words of wise encouragement: “Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (Jas 5:7-8).