I was driving to Rochester last week to give a talk to the local chapter of Magnificat, and I decided to make the trip into a mini-retreat of sorts. I brought along a recording by renowned theologian and writer Henri Nouwen called “The Spirituality of Waiting.” It wasn’t a new talk for me, but I decided it was time for a refresher, since waiting is not one of my strong suits.
Being on the open road for four hours is the perfect time for thinking about waiting and the way we view time, or at least time spent on things that don’t seem important or productive or special. After all, the goal of my drive was the destination I had programmed into my GPS; the drive was just the means to an end. At least that’s how my mind usually works.
“Be here now.” I often write those words on a small dry erase board on my desk. It’s as much a reminder for myself as it is for those who come by to visit. Can I be present where I am at this moment, even if that happens to be behind a steering wheel, or on line at the grocery story, or in the waiting room at the dentist? It’s human nature to see those times as a sort of limbo where we’re biding our time until real life gets back under way.
And sometimes the waiting is much more difficult than a long Friday afternoon drive. How often do I look at the events of my life as things I need to wait out until I reach a better or different destination? When I get through the big work project, a child’s illness, the busy holiday season, the inevitable annual financial crunch…life will be better, easier, happier. We tend to live in a state of “I wish (fill in the blank).” But “active waiting,” as Nouwen calls it, challenges us to settle into where we are right now and sit with our pain or frustration or boredom in hopeful expectation.
“I feel that for many people waiting is sort of an awful desert between where you are and where you want to go, and you don’t like that place,” said Nouwen, pointing out that the difference between seeing waiting as a time of growth rather than as a time of frustration is choosing hope over fear. “A waiting person is someone who is very present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.”
We are all waiting in one way or another. Many of the women I met in Rochester shared difficult stories, and I marveled at how faith-filled they were in spite of their sorrows and stresses. I never would have guessed from looking at them that they were facing such obstacles and burdened with such heartaches. They are women waiting in hope, and they showed me in very practical terms what I’d heard in theory on the Nouwen recording the night before: “Waiting is never moving from nothing to something. It’s always from something to something.”
God calls us to see the “something” in the fallow moments as well as the full moments, in our struggles as well as our successes. That’s certainly not easy, especially if we’re suffering through it. It takes practice. We can start small—like on a drive across the state on a clear autumn day—and embrace what is rather than what we wish could be. The next moment isn’t the one that counts. This is the moment. Be here now. Wait in hope and see what God has in store.
This Life Lines column originally appeared in the Oct. 13, 2016, issue of Catholic New York.