Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Waiting”

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Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

In her recent novel, The Underpainter, Jane Urquhard offers some thoughts on waiting. Her main character, a brilliant artist whose capacity to live and relate healthily does not parallel his aesthetic talents, tells of a conversation he has had with Sara, his woman-friend of sixteen years:

“Sometime during August of 1935, the last month of the last summer I spent at Sliver Islet, Sara told me what it was like to wait. She said that there were two kinds of waiting: the waiting that consumes the mind and that which occurs somewhere below the surface of awareness. The latter is more bearable, but also more dangerous because it manifests itself in ways that are not at first definable as such. She told me that over the period of the last winter she had finally realized that everything that she did or said – every activity – was either a variant of, or a substitute for, waiting and therefore had no relevance on its own.” (McClelland & Steward, Toronto, 1997, p. 95.)

An interesting reflection. Henri Nouwen used to say that 98% of our lives are spent in waiting. At a superficial level, we experience this in the amount of time we spend waiting at check-out counters, in airports, for buses, for somebody to arrive, or for something to end – our workaday, a class, a church service, a meal, a family discussion, a bout with the flu. But that is the superficial part of it.

More important is the fact that almost all the time we are waiting for a fuller season for our lives. Rarely do we have what Nouwen calls “a fully pregnant moment”, namely, a moment when we can say to ourselves: “Right now, I don’t want to be any other place, with any other persons, doing anything else, than what I am doing right now!”

From infancy onwards, we are nearly always waiting for something else to happen: As a baby, every time our mother leaves the room we wait anxiously for her to return. As a child, we wait for those special moments of play and celebration – “When will Gramma come? When will my friend visit again? When will it be time to eat? When will I get my treat? When will it be Christmas? When will we get to go to the park again?” Little children are not satisfied for long.

This changes somewhat during pre-adolescence. The years between starting school and puberty are perhaps the one time in life when we are more satisfied with the present moment. In those years before our sexual awakening, we see things less through the prism of dis-ease. However, even in this period, there is a constant restlessness for we want to grow up, be like the big kids, be independent, do grown-up things.

Then at puberty, the awakening of sexuality arouses within us a restlessness which makes the rest of our lives one painful exercise in waiting. From that moment onwards, every hormone in us longs for a consummation that, even if it is ever attained, is had only for the briefest of moments. Moreover sexuality also stirs the soul, rousing within us a longing (“below the surface of awareness”) that makes virtually every activity for the rest of our lives precisely “either a variant of, or a substitute for, waiting” and an activity that does not have full relevance on its own.

For awhile, of course, this is a waiting that consumes the mind: We want to meet the right person, fall in love, get married, have children, achieve something significant, create something lasting, gain the respect of family and peers, create some independence, and acquire the good things of life. But Urquhard is right. Something else, something under the surface of awareness, is driving all of this and the things we so long for on the surface, good in themselves, do not have full relevance on their own.

But if this is true, isn’t there something fundamentally wrong here? Isn’t the task of life precisely that of making the present moment enough? Doesn’t the wisdom of the ages tell us to seize the day? Isn’t it rather stoic and joy-killing to accept that life is 98% about waiting?

On the contrary, to accept that in this life all symphonies remain unfinished is not masochistic, but freeing. My parents’ generation did this by, each day, saying the prayer: “For now we live, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” Praying like this didn’t turn them into cold stoics. Instead, knowing that the full symphony for which we wait can not be had here, they were able to enjoy, perhaps more so than can our own generation, the real joys that are possible.

Karl Jung once said that life is a journey between the paradise of the womb and the paradise of heaven. Jesus said that while on earth we are on pilgrimage. Is it any wonder then that at a certain point in life we begin to realize that everything is a variant of, or a substitute for, waiting?