“The word ‘passion’ does not mean…’pain.’ It means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of one’s situation, being the object of what is done. So the passion of Jesus…connects with every experience of passing, suddenly or gradually, into a more dependent phase or area of life…
-W.H. Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting, p. 70.
If there’s one subject that has intrigued me nearly my entire life, it’s the dreaded seasons of waiting. In this particular phase of my life, waiting is a regular occurrence: I tote three young girls to doctor’s appointments, exam rooms, hospitals, therapy offices, and medical clinics every. single. week. It’s the “hurry up and wait” mentality as I shuffle coats, snacks, and toys in a frazzled state of trying to be punctual. Yet, despite punctuality, we almost always have to wait – an unspecified amount of time. And if you’re a young parent, you understand that every minute spent in a waiting room feels like hours.
It was fitting, then, for me to reflect on the spirituality of waiting. I ask myself often, “Why does God ask us to wait? Why does He seem silent when we are pressing to move forward with a project or plan?” To answer these questions, I turned to great spiritual thinkers, such as Henri Nouwen and W.H. Vanstone, two men who saw this concept worth philosophizing about.
This reading and research led to my latest book, Waiting with Purpose: Persevering When God Says “Not Yet.” Since Lent is upon us, it seemed fitting to focus on one aspect of waiting, which is passive waiting.
Active waiting is akin to Advent: we are eager for the fulfillment of a specific promise, as Our Lady waited in community with St. Elizabeth when they both were pregnant. Passive waiting, however, comprises most of our experiences: we become the object, rather than subject, of what happens to us. We do not control the outcome. Therefore, passive waiting is part of our unique passion, which is actually our true purpose before life ends.
Moving From Action to Passion: Are We Achieving or Receiving?
Most of us in western culture have accepted the belief that work is a measure of how successful our lives are. We are often defined by our work; it’s the core of our identity. Take, for example, a conversation with strangers at a dinner party. What is one of the first questions to pop up? “What is it that you do for a living?” or “Where do you work?”
When a person does not have a high degree or lucrative job or — gasp — a job outside the home at all, we fall short of enthusiasm and replies. It’s because we falsely equate work with our life’s purpose.
Modern philosopher W.H. Vanstone succinctly and persuasively explained that the opposite is, in fact true: Jesus proclaimed at the Last Supper, “My work is finished.” But He spoke the words, “It is finished” immediately before He expired on the Cross. This means that our work is not the end purpose or the ultimate value of our lives – it’s our passion, how we handle what is done to us, suffering! That is the real spiritual meaning of a fruitful and complete life.
Understanding the Helpless Person in a New Way
Vanstone further expounds in his book, The Stature of Waiting, that helplessness — as a temporary or permanent state in life — should not be ignored or rejected. On the contrary, it should be highly regarded, perhaps above the working (achieving) condition of one’s life. Helplessness requires dependence — on God, on the charitable acts of others, and on a deep, abiding humility that what has been abandoned is not wasted.
If we can approach people with immense love and kindness who are temporarily incapacitated because of illness or injury, and even more, those who are permanently disabled and require constant care, then we understand the wisdom that periods of waiting afford us. We can use the opportunity to brood in resentment and restless anger, or we can enter into the solitude of waiting with hope and expectation that suffering is not the end. In time, Resurrection will come for us if we remain faithful, patient, and perseverant until death.
Waiting Fosters a Deeper Awareness of Others
A great gift of passive waiting is that we become more attuned to the plight of others around us. Truthfully, during times of abundance and working (or achieving), we scarcely notice suffering. It’s because we ourselves are not burdened by a particular cross. Yet if we are struggling or have endured a specific hardship (death or significant loss or change), we have more empathy for those who are grieving or deeply sorrowful. Therefore, we’re more likely to accompany them in some way, to assist them through their pain and into a place of peace.
The spirituality of waiting is far deeper than this sample here. The point of this article is to explain that passive waiting, or our passion, is really the ultimate gift of love we can receive. The next time you are feeling as if you are a burden to someone because of your physical dependence on them, remember that you are a gift to others and that your helplessness (state of receiving) is vastly more valuable than if you were in a state of working, or achieving.
Move through your passion this Lent, whatever it may be, and do so with the same confidence in God that you carry during your Advent waiting – joyful hope, earnest expectation, and triumphant jubilation.