The siren wailed, just close enough that it could be heard over the din of late afternoon traffic, last Friday in Mexico City. The driver of my car stopped in the middle of the road, as did every other car, and whispered: alerta sisimica. It took me only a moment to realize the system Mexico has installed to warn residents of an incoming earthquake was now warning us, telling us our earth would soon be shaken.
We had a full minute — 60 long seconds — of nervously huddling in our car, waiting. The driver called his children to tell them to take cover. I sent a quick email to my parents, and then began praying. I sized up our surroundings — which trees might fall, which power lines to avoid and which other people in nearby cars might need help. My mind was going a million miles a minute as adrenaline flowed through my veins.
The quake arrived, rolling through in waves. I saw it first in the trees that started swaying unnaturally in several directions, so different from their familiar dance in the wind. Our car rocked; we grabbed hold of the doors and tried to steady ourselves, wishing it to end.
After another long minute, it seemed to be over, and we could turn on the radio to hear the report: A 7.2 quake had struck the state of Oaxaca, 200 miles to the south. Miraculously, no one died, and the damage was limited.
But those moments — between the alert and the arrival of the earthquake and between feeling its force and returning to normal life — have stayed with me. They were moments of passionate waiting, in which all my abilities and feelings and ideas were on full alert, wanting to spring into action or make us safer. Yet, all I could do was wait.
Waiting — whether forced by nature or circumstances, or voluntarily undertaken — reminds us that we are incomplete people, people in progress, and that progress only occurs over time.
Most of us today are not very good at waiting. We struggle with patience and with processes that seem bigger than us. At Georgetown University, we are people of action, and we see each problem or issue as something to be “figured out.” With enough effort and energy, we believe we can immediately overcome every obstacle.
But many of the most important processes in our lives take time; their resolution is not fully in our hands. Our own knowledge and abilities fall silent as we await a diagnosis for a loved one or ourselves. We send out our applications for jobs, graduate school or internships, and then we linger and hope the work we put into them will bring a positive response and a meaningful career.
We turn to a friend or colleague to ask for forgiveness, but must await their action and generosity if we are to be reconciled. We long to begin or deepen a relationship, but can only see it blossom into love if it is reciprocated by the other.
We desire justice and respect in our nation and around the globe, but know our efforts require the long work of slowly building community and trust from the ground up.
The Christian season of Lent, in which we find ourselves now, is a time of passionate waiting. It begins in a deep realization that not all is in our control and, even if it were, we are not fully up to the task of perfecting ourselves.
Acceptance of that reality is why we mark ourselves with the grit of ashes, pressing onto our foreheads — so close to the brains on which we so often rely — a reminder of our own mortality. We are born of the same matter of the earth; we are grounded in its seismic forces and its slow unfolding over time.
We give ourselves to greater contemplation and prayer during these days, hoping to glimpse the divine panorama that stretches beyond our own efforts. We undertake simple acts of fasting and sharing that keep us mindful that we, individually and collectively, are not yet complete.
This realization — that completion is a longer process than we have power to control — brings hope. Indeed, if we are honest, we have to admit we truly do not know how all will work out. We do not yet fully know who we are or how we will react when that key moment arrives. But we know our waiting is overflowing with meaning, with possibility and even with transformation — so we wait.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. He currently serves as the director of the Center for Latin American Studies and is a Jesuit-in-Residence in Kennedy Hall. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Monday.