Exploring the Practice of Holy Waiting with Augustine’s De Patientia

The extent and pace of COVID-19 infection internationally during early 2020 has necessitated the self-isolation of the entire populace of many nations within an extraordinarily short period.

It is a situation unlike any other within recent memory, recalling the limitations on personal freedom and movement during crises such as World War II or the influenza pandemic of 1918. Humanity is being called to embrace a virtue of patience that, in an age of instant gratification, they are ordinarily ill-disposed to adopt. The potential for serious sickness and death, particularly among the most vulnerable of our populations, has meant that for the immediate future the question is not whether isolation is necessary, but rather, how a necessary isolation may be best utilised for individual and societal well-being. Certainly, developments in technology and communications have meant that negative impacts on social connection and employment have been mitigated to some extent. Offers of discounted (or even free) online instruction by educational institutions, professional bodies, or individual instructors have given an opportunity for many to employ idle hands and minds in further education, the learning of a new skill, or the continuation of a hobby during isolation. Such opportunities may support human flourishing and health on a material level, but what might a spiritual or theological analysis of such retrieval approaches conclude?

The witness of Scripture consistently presents a God who is the source and inspiration of true patience, the one whose grace and compassion is demonstrated in slowness to anger (e.g. Exod 34:6; Ps 86:15) and directs his followers to embrace patience as a faithful virtue (e.g. Ps 27:14; Col 3:12), a virtue which is increasingly required. Christian community has of necessity entered a state of semi-stasis during this time of social quarantine. Despite the moves to virtual worship services and other gatherings now recognised as presently necessary,[1] there will be many aspects of Christian community and service that cannot be adapted with enforced social distancing. Worshipping communities and individuals will be called on to live out their trust and hope in Christ in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable posture of waiting—for cures and treatments to be found, for restrictions to be lifted, and for the church to return to its familiar patterns and roles witnessing to the eternal rule of Christ. Holiness must shift (if only partially) from an active to passive posture as love for neighbour presently requires a limiting of physical proximity and embrace in order to preserve and protect the invisibly vulnerable among us. The issue that therefore presents is how the Church might best practice holy waiting while remaining faithful to its redeemed identity and calling.

Although no indication exists that Augustine composed De Patientia (“On Patience”)[2] in a specific context of pestilence (or any other physical or spiritual trial), his contrast of the nature of Christian patience with more carnal forms of endurance is worth consideration in the current crisis. The present study will examine Augustine’s theological view of Christian patience and outline how his central principles might inform a contemporary practice of holy waiting in order to embody a model of redeemed patience to the world.

Augustine on the Nature of Christian Patience

Augustine’s consideration of the nature of patience is oriented primarily not towards the temporal experiences of humanity, but the eternal divine attributes or aspects of his character, as patience belongs properly to the One whose character cannot be altered by circumstance:

But the patience of God, of what kind and how great it is, His, Whom we say to be impassible, yet not impatient, nay even most patient, in words to unfold this who can be able? Ineffable is therefore that patience, as is His jealousy, as His wrath, and whatever there is like to these. For if we conceive of these as they be in us, in Him there are none.[3]

Augustine’s theological anthropology proposes that true personhood is established through the perfecting Trinitarian love by which eternal Persons are graciously communicated to humanity by the love and work of Christ.[4] Patience, similar to all virtues, is thereby necessarily grounded within the godhead and thus replicated in humanity only in that it is first perfected in the eternally divine nature. Augustine does not confuse this patience with the impassibility or unchangeableness of God, but rather contends that perfect patience derives from the same impassibility that undergirds his holy jealousy and wrath. As will be subsequently discussed, this patience is an attribute of divine character that is communicable to humanity via grace and election, and thus anyone who is truly patient will act as a vessel and witness to the One who is truly patient.[5]

For humanity, Augustine proposes that patience

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.[6]

Patience is therefore an orientation of conscience towards forbearance in faith, to endure temporary negative circumstance in order to persevere to more tranquil waters. It may initially appear that Augustine is advocating a consequentialist perspective, that the proper endurance of adverse temporal circumstances will of necessity produce more agreeable circumstances. However, it becomes clear that this is not what Augustine proposes. Indeed, his central critique of individuals who will endure hardships specifically in order to gain material advantage and satisfy carnal desires is that they do not practice true patience at all. While contemporaries may praise their endurance of hardship for the glories they will gain, Augustine is clear that praise of such endurance as being godly is inappropriate.[7] He thus concludes:

When therefore thou shalt see any man suffer aught 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 it is true patience: when that is not polluted by lust, then this is distinguished from falsity … but they which rightly use the suffering, these in verity of patience are praised, these with the prize of patience are crowned.[8]

As Augustine here holds that endurance of hardship in and of itself is insufficient to determine moral value, it then must be considered how Augustine might identify a teleology or goal of patience that would merit godly praise.

Such patience, it is clear, Augustine frames in eschatological rather than material terms. While those with temporal priorities may bear physical trials in order to gain material advantage, those of the Lord will prefer the future of their souls even to the point of enduring in patience the harm or even destruction of the physical body.[9] Here Augustine does not unequivocally reject the material in favour of the spiritual, but renders priorities in light of resurrection hope at the end of the present age, as seen in his reflection on the Pauline description of the redemption of the body in Romans 8:

When therefore any ills do torture us indeed, yet not extort from us thorough 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 hath through grief and death an inviolable health and happy immortality laid up for itself.[10]

Trials and sufferings of a physical nature are therefore to be borne in godly patience not for temporal advantage, but that the redeemed of God are assured a physical future that remains unaffected. It is noted that such perspectives are consistent with the movement from the more Neoplatonic philosophy on Augustine’s earlier work to the biblical theology of the end times characteristic of Augustine’s later exegesis and reflections.[11]

In considering the merit of godly patience, Augustine rejects the idea that the source of such patience resides in the individual will, as would the endurance of the proud who desire only temporal satisfaction.[12] Instead, patience is regarded as what would subsequently be termed a communicable attribute, a holy transformation of character as a gift from the God who is the eternal source of patience, and thus “the patience of the godly is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”[13] Patience is to be regarded as a Spiritual discipline rather than a personal or material one:

Because concupiscence, whereof it cometh that persons sinning suffer all things stubbornly, is of the world; but charity, whereof cometh that persons living aright suffer all things bravely is of God … this, which is true patience, the human will, unless aided and inflamed from above, doth not suffice for the very seasons that the Holy Spirit is the fire thereof …[14]

Augustine reinforces the non-material origin and orientation of true patience by maintaining that the grace by which the attribute is communicated is through divine election preceding any human merit. While those who by the power of their own will pursue material advantage have their identity in “the world”, the people of God have been relocated through election out of “the world” and thus the nature of their patience does not resemble those who remain in it.[15] Divine love that prompts the election of the righteous is not merited by any good works, including patience, but rather the confirmation of election witnessed in those good works testifies to the divine love which precedes human love.[16] Thus, Augustine contends that it is impossible for the unregenerate and unrighteous to display godly patience because their identity does not primarily derive from such divine love:

Let thus much have been said with regard to charity, without which in us there cannot be true patience, because in good men it is the love of God which endureth all things, as in bad men the lust of the world. But this love is in us by the Holy Spirit which was given us. Whence, of Whom cometh in us love, of Him cometh patience. But the lust of the world, when it patiently bears the burdens of any manner of calamity, boasts of the strength of its own will, like as of the stupor of disease, not robustness of health.[17]

Temporal forbearance of hardship therefore is classified as utterly unlike godly patience because of its self-contained teleology, capable of reference to no other than the one who engages in it. Godly patience, in contrast, is marked as that in which the divine extends towards and includes regenerate humanity in order to draw them forward to the eschaton secured in the risen Christ.

Engaging a Posture of Holy Waiting

How then might an Augustinian perspective on godly patience inform individual and corporate practice of holy waiting during a time of increased social distancing or quarantine? Without presuming to impose regulations that may not be applicable or appropriate for all locations and circumstances, a number of theological principles may be advanced.

First, the practice of patience in holy waiting must be regarded as not merely a measure of personal exertion but of the operations of God in Trinity being perfected in redeemed communal and individual witness that continues even as regular patterns of meeting and witnessing may for a time necessarily be halted. O’Donovan observes that “Christian moral reasoning begins not with the authority of created structures but rather with the authority of Christ.”[18] Circumstances of isolation do not subtract from the call of the Church to be the people among whom the eternal Trinity dwells. The redeemed of God, having been crucified with Christ, are defined first by the risen Christ who resides in them and only afterwards by temporal existence (Gal 2:20). Thus, the witness of the redeemed is not solely in sharing the common sufferings of humanity in times of hardship, but also to exemplify the perfection to which they have been called in such circumstances. Just as the Church in active mission is the incarnation of the God who wishes all people to be saved, so the Church in stillness testifies to the patience and forbearance with which Christ accomplished redemption and bears with creation until the Parousia.

Second, while opportunities for personal development or advancement may present themselves during a time of isolation, these are not to be the primary focus of those engaged in holy waiting. Certainly, the abundance of time produced by the cessation of regular employment or other educational or recreational activities may allow time for mental, artistic, cultural, or even physical pursuits that may have been previously difficult to commence. Such worldly pursuits retain value for temporal flourishing, and it is advisable that individuals find at least some outlet for the surfeit of mental and physical energy that will be present during this period in order to guard against unnecessary decline in faculties. However, from an Augustinian perspective, to ascribe to such altered circumstances the primary directive of personal advancement would be to neglect the divine-centred purpose of holy waiting as previously described in favour of endurance based on carnal lust. Employing adverse circumstances solely to build personal advantage may lead to improved temporal conditions but may also result in diminishment of eschatological hope. Further, any temptation to build on material advantage at the expense of neighbours whose altered circumstances may have pushed them to desperate decisions regarding property must be avoided in line with the Pauline warning that those who pursue self-indulgent ends will forfeit their inheritance of the Kingdom (1 Cor 6:9–10). Those in holy waiting are instead called to wise judgement as to how the employment of their faculties and resources during this period might support their ongoing redeemed identity and witness to it rather than undermining it.

Third, holy waiting is not to be defined by a withdrawal of the love by which disciples of Christ are usually to be distinguished, but as a recommitment to that love by exceptional circumstances. If patience is ultimately to witness to the origin and terminus of divine love, then such love must be continually reaffirmed in the lives of the redeemed. Social isolation or quarantine does not reverse the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25–37)—we are not called to now imitate the scribe or Levite and “pass by on the other side” as our neighbours lie in need. Indeed, in such circumstances as the present, the example of the Samaritan becomes more pertinent than ever. Though rushing to physical embrace may risk the further spread of infection to those most vulnerable among us, those in holy waiting must remain active in love by whatever means and opportunities remain permissible in the varying contexts in which the Church is called to witness.

Luke Collings completed his MTh in systematic theology at Moore Theological College. He is currently Priest-In-Charge of the parish of Moranbah in the Anglican Diocese of Central Queensland.

[1] Peter Gunders, “Coronavirus poses no problems for believers who turn to virtual technology in troubled times,”

[2] Augustine, “On Patience [De patientia]”, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers I:3; ed. Phillip Schaff; trans. H. Browne (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004), 527–36.

[3] Augustine, De patientia, 1.527.

[4] Matthew Drever, “Loving God in and through the Self: Trinitarian Love in St. Augustine,” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 78:1–2 (2017): 12–13.

[5] A more recent account of the perfections that adopts a similar perspective is found in Colin Gunton, Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 123–32.

[6] Augustine, De patientia, 2.528.

[7] Augustine, De patientia, 3–4.528.

[8] Augustine, De patientia, 5.528.

[9] Augustine, De patientia, 6.528.

[10] Augustine, De patientia, 7.529.

[11] For a more comprehensive examination see Paul C. Burns, “Augustine of Hippo on the Christian Life: Then and Now”, Crux 53/8 (2018): 20–21.

[12] Augustine, De patientia, 12–13.531-2.

[13] Augustine, De patientia, 14.532.

[14] Augustine, De patientia, 14.532.

[15] Augustine, De patientia, 16–17.532–3.

[16] Augustine, De patientia, 18.533.

[17] Augustine, De patientia, 20.534. In a review on recent scholarship on Augustinian mediation of virtues, which has had a tendency to assign primary mediation to either Son or Spirit, Dodaro proposes that a more consistent reading of Augustine retains a unity of mediation as a trinitarian action, thought he operations of either Son or Spirit may be emphasised in particular circumstances. See Robert Dodaro, “Augustine on the Roles of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Mediation of Virtues,” Augustinian Studies 41:1 (2010): 145–63.

[18] Oliver O’Donovan, “The Moral Authority of Scripture,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, eds. Markus Bockmuel and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 166.