Before reading St. Augustine’s On Patience I did not clearly associate that virtue with suffering. I always just thought of patience as the virtue I need to practice to be kind when my family is running late to an event or to remain calm when someone cuts me off on the highway. However, patience is more than simply keeping a cool head as we experience daily annoyances.
A great gift
That virtue of the mind which is called Patience, is so great a gift of God, that even in Him who bestows the same upon us, that, whereby He waits for evil men that they may amend, is set forth by the name of Patience, [or long-suffering.]
According to St. Augustine, patience is a virtue of the mind. He calls patience a “great gift” and connects that virtue of men to God’s patience as he waits for evil men to amend their lives. Therefore, when we patiently suffer we may recall that some of Christ’s own suffering was endured for the time we spend away from Him, not unlike a parent who agonizes over a destructive child.
The patience of man, which is right and laudable and worthy of the name of virtue, is understood to be that by which we tolerate evil things with an even mind, that we may not with a mind uneven desert good things, through which we may arrive at better.
We are called to tolerate evil with “an even mind.” This means that to exercise patience we must endure suffering with a peaceful mind and a peaceful heart. The Christian is expected to persevere through suffering. We must continue down the path of righteousness even though abandoning our journey in order to end the suffering might be easier.
A good cause
Patience is companion of wisdom, not handmaid of concupiscence: patience is the friend of a good conscience, not the foe of innocence.
When therefore you shall see any man suffer anything patiently, do not straightway praise it as patience; for this is only shown by the cause of suffering. When it is a good cause, then is it true patience: when that is not polluted by lust, then is this distinguished from falsity.
For patience to be virtuous, there must be a good reason for it. A robber who waits quietly in the dark for a victim is not exercising the virtue of patience. The cause of his waiting is evil. However, if a man suffers for a good cause, then he exercises the virtue of patience if he endures it in peace, without committing evil acts or words, and does not seek to change course from the good or to flee from suffering only for relief.
Possess your soul
The Lord says, In your patience you shall possess your souls: He says not, your farms, your praises, your luxuries; but, your souls. If then the soul endures so great sufferings that it may possess that whereby it may be lost, how great ought it to bear that it may not be lost?
But if what we see not we hope for, we do by patience wait for it. When therefore any ills do torture us indeed, yet not extort from us ill works, not only is the soul possessed through patience; but even when through patience the body itself for a time is afflicted or lost, it is unto eternal stability and salvation resumed, and has through grief and death an inviolable health and happy immortality laid up for itself.
If the Lord allows us to face trials that test our patience, he does it so that we may possess our own soul. A man who does not practice the virtue of patience loses his soul. A man who possesses his soul through peaceful suffering receives salvation and happy immortality.
An invisible enemy
It is indeed a greater fight of patience, when it is not a visible enemy that by persecution and rage would urge us into crime which enemy may openly and in broad day be by not consenting overcome; but the devil himself, (he who does likewise by means of the children of infidelity, as by his vessels, persecute the children of light) does by himself hiddenly attack us, by his rage putting us on to do or say something against God.
Here, St. Augustine tells us that the enemy attacks us invisibly and through his “children of infidelity” to try to get us to speak against God. This statement is supported by Ephesians 6:12 which tells us that the daily battle each Christian fights is a battle involving powerful and invisible enemies who attack us through worldly means.
The trial may involve people close to us
There stood the wife, and instead of giving her husband any help, was suggesting blasphemy against God. For we are not to think that the devil, in leaving her when he took away the sons, went to work as one unskilled in mischief: rather, how necessary she was to the tempter, he had already learned in Eve.
There stood his friends too, not to console him in his evils, but to suspect evil in him. For while he suffered so great sorrows, they believed him not innocent, nor did their tongue forbear to say that which his conscience had not to say; that so amid ruthless tortures of the body, his mind also might be beaten with truthless reproaches. But he, bearing in his flesh his own pains, in his heart others’ errors, reproved his wife for her folly, taught his friends wisdom, preserved patience in each and all.
St. Augustine discusses Job and how Satan attacked him using his own wife and friends who blamed him for his suffering after Job had already lost all of his property and his children and was afflicted with a skin disease. Job’s story teaches us that the trials that test our patience may involve the people close to us. Spouses, siblings, friends, and co-workers, the people we need the most, may be deceived by the enemy to harass us while we suffer, making our trials even more difficult.
The furnace of humiliation
Let then the Saints hear from holy Scripture the precepts of patience: My son, when you come to the service of God, stand in righteousness and fear, and prepare your soul for temptation: bring your heart low, and bear up; that in the last end your life may increase. All that shall come upon you receive you, and in pain bear up, and in your humility have patience. For in the fire gold and silver is proved, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation. And in another place we read: My son, faint not in the discipline of the Lord, neither be wearied when you are chidden of Him. For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.
Trials that test our patience are part of the Christian journey. St. Augustine tells us to be prepared for trials, to be humble, and to practice patience. Being tried in this way is a sign that we are “acceptable men” loved by the Lord and that we are being purified like gold or silver in a furnace through our humiliation.
A free gift of God’s grace
But the concupiscence of the bad, by reason of which there is in them a false patience, is not of the Father, as says the Apostle John, but is of the world.
In fear and trembling work out your own salvation;whether through joy, of which he says, In hope rejoicing, in tribulation patient; whether through sorrow, with which he says he had great grief for his brethren; in whatever way it endure what bitterness and hardships soever, it is the love of God which endures all things, and which is not shed abroad in our hearts but by the Holy Spirit given unto us. Whereof piety makes no manner of doubt, but, as the charity of them which holily love, so the patience of them which piously endure, is the gift of God.
Because unto you is given on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but to suffer for Him.
There is a type of false patience that can be exercised by the human will. However, the true virtue of patience can only be exercised through the free gift of God’s grace and not by the human will. Just as Jesus chose the Apostles, not because of their own merits but simply because he chose them, so God provides the free gift of His grace in order for us to exercise the true virtue of patience through our suffering which we do for Christ.
Patient suffering is meaningful and never without value
Labor then is said not to perish (or be lost), not because it lasts perpetually, but because it is not spent in vain. So also the patience of the poor of Christ (who yet are to be made rich as heirs of Christ) shall not perish for ever: not because there also we shall be commanded patiently to bear, but because for that which we have here patiently borne, we shall enjoy eternal bliss. He will put no end to everlasting felicity, Who gives temporal patience unto the will: because both the one and the other is of Him bestowed as a gift upon charity, Whose gift that charity is also.
Patient suffering is not in vain. Both the grace to patiently bear our suffering and the eternal happiness which results from it are God’s acts of charity toward us.
The virtue of patience
In summary, patience is that virtue which we exercise through the free gift of God’s grace. The virtue of patience allows us to endure suffering for a good cause with a peaceful heart and mind. Through patience we are able to continue our journey toward the good even though we may be tempted to abandon our journey to avoid our suffering. An invisible enemy works against us through worldly people and even through the people who are closest to us to make our trials more difficult. However, the trials that test our patience are signs that we are acceptable to God; these trials are opportunities to purify and possess our own souls. Patiently enduring our trials is never wasted. It is a valuable activity that brings us to eternal bliss. Both the grace to practice patience and the reward of eternal happiness are signs of God’s charity toward us.