I’ve been on the road a great deal this academic term, a temporary inhabitant of the terminals in various cities on the East Coast, the West Coast and sites in between. In those journeys it has become clearer and clearer to me that waiting remains a major part of contemporary life.
For all our mastery of distances and for all our ability to collapse time, we moderns still spend time “in between where we’ve come from and where we want to end.” Within that in-between time of waiting, there are plenty of diversions, of course: quick-food stalls, upscale bars and restaurants, magazine racks galore, now and then a bookstore, salons of one kind or another and, of course, the seemingly indefatigable colony of texting connoisseurs. The enduring game of waiting invites diversion.
But there is another side of waiting, one that invites engagement. Primarily, engagement with oneself — a contemplative time to explore where my life is going. The leisure to appreciate the friends that populate my memory with their affection and care, with their humor and their challenge; the time to review and to enjoy how my mind has grown. The time to cherish what I’ve learned in class and from good teachers, what I’ve read that has captured my heart and challenged my set ideas. Even time to take a look at the people around me — their wild and wonderful divergence in ages, dress, moods — and to be overwhelmed with this underexplored diversity that ordinary life gathered together in this place and in this time.
That kind of contemplative moment, a pause from the tyranny of self-competition that so often drives me from one task to another so that I can feel never quite caught up, this precious moment of reflection, of dreaming anew, of simply remembering with a fondness of heart that there are good folks who love me — this special recollection in tranquility that poets from Wordsworth to Read have honored — is part of my spiritual inheritance too. In other words, waiting can become a search for grace transcending the search for diversion.
Waiting for grace is at the core of every religious pilgrimage. If you are hospitable to grace — that illusive reality that the essayist Brian Doyle celebrates as the core in every good story, saving us from isolation and reuniting us to the human family — or if you appreciate grace as the gift of attentiveness that Mary Oliver honors as the beginning of prayer, then the waiting we do is an opening to grace, to the discovery of love lurking in the inconvenience of delayed flights and rescheduled trains. Waiting can morph into a moment of self-discovery with God.
This self-discovery with God comes when love and not boredom takes over our consciousness, when, forced by circumstances beyond our control, we can learn to appreciate what we are and let go of what we should be. There is a kind of surrender in learning how to wait in peace and serenity.
Here at Georgetown, this waiting for something that I cannot hasten is what many of our friends and colleagues learn in retreats, in prayer experiences and in liturgies. Self-discovery before God is not hard and buried in the trips you’ll soon be making for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the longer semester break. But, more profoundly, it is the invitation to carve out time in schedules that become crowded with deadlines to insert lifelines of self-discovery with God. Waiting can become a habit of the heart.
Many of us stand on the threshold of Advent, the Christian Church’s season of waiting. That season, which begins this Nov. 30, should be an ecumenical invitation to make waiting time, discovery time. For our hectic hearts, which are so often caught in timetables and schedules and deadlines, need their sweet revolts as well as forced compliances.
After all, we who wait so much in this life need the grace to tell a demanding world that, now and then, it will have to wait for us to reclaim our souls, the abodes of grace. Such a peaceful revolt is one way to beat the waiting game.