The Patience of the Saints

Almost all of us need to grow in patience…but most of us are in no particular hurry to do so. One of the drawbacks of living in an “instant society” — as ours has been called — is a tendency to believe that we should receive what we need or want right now and that having to wait for something is an unreasonable burden or expectation.

Our impatience tends to carry over into our relationships with others; we often expect them to conform to our standards, to our biases, and to our schedules; and when they don’t, many of us aren’t at all shy about letting them know how we feel. There are even times when impatience can show up in our relationship with God: “When will this Mass be over?” “How long does God expect me to put up with this?” “Why isn’t the Lord answering my prayer?”

It’s true that, seen from a larger perspective, our lives on earth seem to pass quickly and that time is too precious for us to waste, but this doesn’t mean we’re entitled to have all our demands met immediately, regardless of the cost.  We’re created to live eternally, and, as the saints realized, humbly practicing the virtue of patience is an important way of preparing ourselves for Heaven.

Pope St. Sylvester gives us an example of the latter. Christianity had been an illegal religion in the Roman Empire, and those who practiced it were subject to imprisonment, torture, and death during times of persecution.  But this changed in the year 313.

St. Sylvester was elected Pope the following year — a time of great promise and adjustment for the Church. Not only did he have to find his way in an unprecedented situation; he also had to deal patiently with Constantine, who had one of the most dominating personalities in that (or any other) era. The emperor was convinced God had given him the responsibility not only of political leadership, but also of influencing and directing the Church.  Like a large, friendly dog that doesn’t know its own strength and is used to getting its way, Constantine wanted to be involved in everything. He had genuine religious motives, sincerely believing in Christianity (although he waited until just before his death to be baptized), but he also thought in political terms: if the Church was a unifying element, that would aid the overall strength of the empire. Thus, the emperor tended to meddle in religious affairs that, strictly speaking, weren’t any of his business. St. Sylvester had to bear all of this patiently, finding the difficult balance between keeping the emperor happy and preserving the Church’s independence (the same dilemma many popes have faced). By and large, he succeeded; St. Augustine might well have been thinking of this holy Pope when he stated about a hundred years later, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”

Another saint who demonstrated the virtue of patience was the abbot St. Aelred. Once, when a noble criticized him in the presence of the king, Aelred listened meekly and then thanked the man for pointing out his faults. The noble was so touched by Aelred’s humility and patience that he begged his forgiveness. Being patient can have a very positive effect on other people.

Usually the impatient people we need to placate or satisfy aren’t powerful authority figures, but the members of our own families.  In the eleventh century, when his parents died, St. Peter Damian was left in the care of an older brother who was not only impatient, but deliberately unkind and neglectful. Peter learned to cope with this situation until another brother took over his care and arranged for his education. Peter’s difficult childhood experiences made him particularly sensitive to the needs and feelings of others; he was not only generous to the poor, but also very patient with those who disagreed with him.

In fact, because everyone found it so easy to get along with Peter, the Pope frequently used him as a mediator in various disputes involving the Church and local officials and in questions of jurisdiction involving different monasteries.

We are called to deal patiently with other people, but that’s not always easily done. As a young monk in the sixth century, St. Dositheus was assigned to care for the sick members of the community.  The self-centeredness to which illness sometimes gives rise can make people unreasonable in their demands; when this happened in the monastery, Dositheus would lose his patience and speak harshly to his charges. Then, filled with remorse, he’d run to his cell and, throwing himself on the floor, weep bitter tears, and beg God’s mercy. His genuine contrition allowed divine grace to work within him, and with God’s help, Dositheus eventually became so kind, patient, and cheerful that those who were sick loved having him present.

St. Cyprian, the great third-century Bishop of Carthage, wrote a famous sermon on the importance of patience, but he himself often had trouble practicing this virtue. Cyprian had a strong personality and fiercely defended Church teachings; he could be both gentle and forgiving, but also strict and uncompromising, and this made him a “lightning rod” in times of religious controversy (such as how strictly the Church should treat lapsed Christians) and a target in times of persecution by the state. St. Cyprian was executed by the authorities in 258; well over a hundred years later, another famous bishop from North Africa, St. Augustine, wrote that Cyprian atoned for his frequent anger and impatience by means of his glorious martyrdom.

Heroic measures are sometimes called for in our effort to rein in our impatience. The first step is to recognize that, although we can’t usually control what happens to us, we can always decide how we’ll respond. That’s why St. Philip Neri remarked, “Sufferings are a kind of paradise to him who suffers them with patience, while they are a hell to him who has no patience.” When we choose to accept life’s irritations as part of God’s plan for us, they are transformed from temptations or possible occasions of sin into a valuable means of grace and spiritual growth.

In terms of our relationships with other people, St. Bonaventure warns, “Beware of becoming vexed or impatient at the faults of others; for it would be folly, when you see a man falling into a ditch, to throw yourself into another for no purpose.” In other words, we shouldn’t allow someone else’s faults to cause us to sin through impatience. The people who most get on our nerves are the ones to whom we most need to show acceptance and understanding.  They may not “deserve” such consideration, but we must try to extend it to them if we wish to please God.

St. Francis de Sales advises us, “Resist your impatience faithfully, practicing, not only with reason, but even against reason, holy courtesy and sweetness to all, but especially to those who weary you most.”

How can we overcome our natural inclinations in this regard?  Simply by reminding ourselves that we’re being patient not primarily for the sake of the person who is irritating us, but as an expression of our love for Jesus. Following Him often means putting up with people, events, and situations we’d prefer to avoid entirely.  This effort is very valuable, for, as St. Katherine Drexel noted, “The patient endurance of the Cross — whatever nature it may be — is the highest work we have to do.”

According to St. Alphonsus Liguori, “The happiest man in the world is he who abandons himself to the will of God and receives all things, whether prosperous or adverse, as from His hands.”  Thus, it can be said that — whether we realize it or not — when we choose either a patient or impatient response to the world around us, we’re deciding whether we’ll be happy or unhappy.  There are some persons, such as St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Bernadette, who are by their nature very gentle and patient; for many of us, however, gentleness and patience are virtues we need to develop as we go through life. Let us remind ourselves of what the saints knew very well from their own experience: God is infinitely patient with each one of us, so it’s not too much for Him to ask that we try to show a little patience toward others.

For Further Reflection

“If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the Cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things that one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the Cross, and did so patiently. . . .” — St. Thomas Aquinas

“He who bears his sufferings with patience for God’s sake, will soon arrive at high perfection. He will be master of the world and will already have one foot in the other world.” — Bl. Giles of Assisi

“When you are overtaken by some misfortune, seek the remedies that God affords you — for not to do so would be to tempt His Divine Providence — but having done so, await the result He may appoint with perfect resignation. If He sees fit to permit the remedies to overcome the evil, thank Him humbly; but if, on the other hand, He permits the evil to overcome the remedies, patiently bless His holy name and submit.” — St. Francis de Sales

Something You Might Try

Assess and strengthen your patience. According to St. Francis of Assisi, “We can never tell how patient or humble a person is when everything is going well with him. But when those who should cooperate with him do the exact opposite, then we can tell.  A man has as much patience and humility as he has then, and no more.” Thus, the people or situations that cause you to become impatient are actually opportunities to prove to God and to yourself how patient and humble you are. If you frequently fall short, you have a clear indication that you need to grow in patience. Make a resolution to try a little harder to resist each temptation to impatience, and ask the Lord (and your favorite saints) to help you carry it out.

Many of us particularly dislike being interrupted when we’re praying, but as St. Francis de Sales notes, a true spirit of prayer recognizes that we can serve God at that moment either by meditating or by responding to the immediate needs of another person.  We should set aside time for prayer, but if that time is interrupted, we should let our patient response be another way of expressing our love for God.

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems, which is available from Sophia Institute Press

Avatar photo


Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage