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A Spirituality of Waiting

What we can learn from our education, our flock, Mary, Joseph and the Eucharist

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Are we good “waiters”? Our everyday experience of having to wait can be boring, annoying or stressful, far more taxing than spiritually productive. Wait for a table. Wait your turn. Take a number. Your flight is delayed.

Waiting happens often. Consider a classic case: a patient waiting at the doctor’s or dentist’s office. You have an appointment. You arrive on time. Then you must take a seat and wait until you are called. No choice. This waiting is silent. Nobody talks. Do you read an old magazine? Pull out your cellphone? When your name is called, you would never ask if you could please wait just a bit longer!

There are virtues needed to handle this kind of waiting, but the Church invites us now into the Advent season — dedicated to waiting of an entirely different sort. Four short weeks, purple vestments, proper readings — it is not too long. Waiting, if you will, is the “reason for the season” of Advent. To help celebrate it well, let us reflect on the spirituality that matches it.

Waiting in Seminary

We clergy were trained to wait. We learned how to do it well — or maybe not so well — during seminary formation. Perhaps we remember seminary compared to doing time in prison. “I did four years,” or perhaps eight years, or even 12 years? A “lifer” was one who went to high school seminary, then college seminary, then major seminary. It may soon be longer. The new ratio for priestly formation proposes a propaedeutic year, perhaps a spiritual year, then a pastoral year or a deacon year. Whew! A seminary skit once paraphrased Psalm 90 to address formation: “Four is the sum of our years, or eight if we are strong, and most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone.” The Church is certainly faithful to 1 Timothy 5:22: “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone.” But what did we learn in formation about spiritual waiting?

In seminary, we likely discovered that mere attitudes of resignation and docility, good enough for the waiting room at the doctor’s office, were not enough for formation. Seminary demanded virtues, in addition to studying, pastoral practice and chapel time. Virtues like trust, self-knowledge and a willingness to be formed were crucial to this waiting. The virtue of fraternity of our diocesan brothers and classmates was essential.

Recently, seminarians have explored a voluntary program called Exodus 90. The spirituality of this deliberately arduous three-month program includes self-mastery, a purgative putting of oneself to the test, a “spiritual cleanse” aimed at deliverance, a daily schedule of endurance and perseverance and a commitment to the Gospel fraternity of manly brotherhood.

Might Advent be a shorter program, could we call it Bethlehem 28? Maybe it’s true that all I really need to know in life I learned in kindergarten, and maybe what we need to know about the spirituality of Advent waiting we learned in seminary.

Waiting with Our Flock

Priests can rightly be called waiters because priestly ministry often asks us to wait with our parishioners. In this sense, Advent is a liturgical celebration of what we do all year long. It is a microcosm of our pastoral life. We do not just “wait for,” but rather “wait with,” others. Consider the waiting of the catechumenate and pre-Cana, guiding confirmation classes and retreats, blessings for expectant parents, prayerfully awaiting Sister Death.

In these moments, we share and pray with all those who are waiting for a profound encounter with Christ. We are there helping them “keep their lamps trimmed and burning,” as the traditional Gospel song has it, for “the time is drawing nigh” (cf. Mt 25:1-13). We unite as a group awaiting the master’s return (Lk 12:35-48). And we are shepherds, keeping watch over the waiting flocks (Lk 2).

The spirituality of priestly waiting calls for solidarity and empathy. It fosters active waiting during these times of grace, preparation, anticipation, testing and trial. We invite people to be stouthearted and wait for the Lord (cf. Ps 27:14). We deliberately raise their expectations of God’s nearness, of his mercy and majesty. The parish becomes an expectant community praying, “Come, Lord Jesus.” This ministerial accompaniment embraces the young in rituals, songs and activities. It engages the family with posadas and novenas, Simbang Gabi, wreaths and calendars, crèches, decorations and vigils of all sorts. We do not wait alone, and we do not wait in vain. Mary waited with Elizabeth, Joseph waited with Mary. We wait with our flock.

Spiritual Direction

An intense kind of waiting occurs in spiritual direction, that attentive listening for and pointing to the activity of the Spirit. Spiritual directors are like St. John the Baptist. He recognized and announced the coming of the Lord into our world. Behold, the Lamb of God. His message did not hesitate to call for repentance. “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). Waiting with John meant going out to the desert. Waiting with John involved preparation, repentance, recognition and proclamation. So, too, spiritual direction.

Advent, if you will, is the whole Church seeking spiritual direction. Not just in one-on-one meetings, but especially in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Liturgy of the Word. It is not just in lectio divina. It includes the particular examen, confession, holy hours and adoration. There’s no getting around it, waiting takes time.

Mary’s Wait

A youngster once asked me, “How can we wait for Christmas when Jesus has already been born for us?” The answer lies in the Blessed Mother. After the conception, Mary had no doubt that Christ was really, physically with her, and in her. To be pregnant is waiting for a new and amazing experience of seeing and holding the child who is already there. A couple expecting a baby already has a baby and therefore what they are expecting is a birth. Spiritually, Mary experienced Christ already, and his presence was real, felt, obvious, life-changing. Her waiting was for something that had begun to become even more intense.

Christ has come in history and is still coming at every Mass in mystery, even as we await the Parousia. The spirituality of now and not yet puts us in touch with Mary, with her pregnancy, with her humility, with her trust. In our devotion to her, she accompanies us, and we accompany her. Mary visits Elizabeth. They wait together.

Mary visits us and waits with us. With her, we wait with confidence and trust. The Lord is with us, and at the same time the Lord is coming. This is so priestly! “May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment” (cf. Phil 1:6) is prayed at every ordination. God continues to do what he begins in us. Maranatha.

Wait with St. Joseph

We wait with St. Joseph. The foster father of Jesus was a dreamer. Dreams are future hopes. Joseph had dreams that inspired, consoled and demanded action. He was to have no fear and to take Mary and Jesus to himself. He was to set out confidently to Egypt in the face of death threats. He was to pack up and return to Nazareth.

What dreams inspire us? Advent waiting is a time to dream. Think of Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation, “I have a dream.” Dreams are about what we await, what we hope, and what we are to do to make them happen. In Acts 2:17 God says, “I will pour out a portion of my spirit / upon all flesh. / Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, / your young men shall see visions, / your old men shall dream dreams.”

The spirituality of waiting is adventuresome, it is daring. It is discerning and trustful.

Eucharistic Waiting

The spirituality of waiting is Eucharistic. Fasting makes us hungry, waiting to feast builds up an appetite. Like the poor outside a soup kitchen, we wait with a hunger born of necessity, poverty and want. And at his table, we meet the Lord who has waited for us. “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (Lk 22:15).

Eucharistic waiting is an everyday event. The prayer before Mass of St. Ambrose in the Roman Missal sharpens this focus. Eucharistic waiting becomes a sort of pilgrimage with a destination in the Upper Room. St. Thomas’ prayer before Mass in the Roman Missal speaks of humble reverence, purity and faith, repentance and love, and determined purpose. This is a spirituality of waiting reaching an apex in our waiting to receive the Bread of Life. The whispered prayer before Communion reveals those last moments of waiting: “Free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood, from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.”

Our waiting was fulfilled in history with the Incarnation, celebrated liturgically at Christmas. Our daily waiting is fulfilled by the Lord sacramentally at the Eucharist. We are still waiting for his return in glory. Our life awaits ultimate union with him. And as for now, in a real sense, we are waiting until our name is called by the Divine Physician.

FATHER J. DANIEL MINDLING, OFM Cap., is academic dean at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he teaches moral philosophy.


Pope Benedict XVI on waiting

“Every one of us, therefore, especially in this season which prepares us for Christmas, can ask himself: What am I waiting for? What, at this moment of my life, does my heart long for? And this same question can be posed at the level of the family, of the community, of the nation. What are we waiting for together? What unites our aspirations, what brings them together? In the time before Jesus’ birth the expectation of the Messiah was very strong in Israel — that is, the expectation of an Anointed One, a descendent of King David, who would at last set the people free from every form of moral and political slavery and find the kingdom of God. But no one would ever have imagined that the Messiah could be born of a humble girl like Mary, the betrothed of a righteous man, Joseph. Nor would she have ever thought of it, and yet in her heart the expectation of the Savior was so great, her faith and hope were so ardent, that he was able to find in her a worthy mother. Moreover, God himself had prepared her before time. There is a mysterious correspondence between the waiting of God and that of Mary, the creature “full of grace,” totally transparent to the loving plan of the Most High. Let us learn from her, the Woman of Advent, how to live our daily actions with a new spirit, with the feeling of profound expectation that only the coming of God can fulfill.”

— Angelus address, Nov. 28, 2010


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