It's almost impossible to avoid other people's frustrating actions, but these moments can help us grow in holiness.
The sixth work of mercy calls on Christians to “bear wrongs patiently.” In this month when we’ve celebrated the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, let’s take the opportunity to discover how the holy Carmelite nun managed to put on her “robe of patience” when one of the sisters of her community deeply annoyed her.
In the Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee that proclaimed 2015 as the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis recalled the works that the Church proposes to each of us in order to help our neighbors in their material and spiritual needs. The seven corporal works of mercy stem from the parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31), while the other seven, the spiritual works of mercy, were passed down by a tradition that has its origin in the writings of the Church Fathers.
It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy … Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead. (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 2015).
Put on the robe of patience
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12), wrote St. Paul. Patience as a garment we must put on is a beautiful image that can “take root in our minds when dealing with a particularly difficult person,” says Fr. Ludovic Frère: “Imagine at that moment that you are putting on the robe of patience, and pray to the Lord to cover with his gentleness all the other feelings that are dominating you: anger, indifference, or perhaps dislike.”
It was this robe of patience that St. Therese put on to bear the fidgeting of one of the Carmelite Sisters during evening prayer. She recounts this episode in Story of a Soul:
For a long time my place at meditation was near a Sister who fidgeted continually, either with her rosary, or something else; possibly, as I am very keen of hearing, I alone heard her, but I cannot tell you how much it tried me. I should have liked to turn round, and by looking at the offender, make her stop the noise; but in my heart I knew that I ought to bear it tranquilly, both for the love of God and to avoid giving pain. So I kept quiet, but the effort cost me so much that sometimes I was bathed in perspiration, and my meditation consisted merely in suffering with patience. After a time I tried to endure it in peace and joy, at least deep down in my soul, and I strove to take actual pleasure in the disagreeable little noise. Instead of trying not to hear it, which was impossible, I set myself to listen, as though it had been some delightful music, and my meditation—which was not the “prayer of quiet”—was passed in offering this music to Our Lord.
A path of sanctification
“The little Thérèse dressed her prayer with gentleness and patience, making it profoundly Christ-like,” Fr. Ludovic Frère says. Patience then becomes an act of charity and a moment of conversion. It’s an act of charity such as Jesus probably performed during his journey on earth, and He is still patient with us today.
“We’re engaged in a journey of faith where we discover Jesus more and more as the One who is patient with us!” says Fr. Emmanuel Coquet. “One can imagine the annoying people He must have met during his public ministry and from whom He never turned away … We could have been among them.”
In St. Paul’s eloquent description of charity, patience takes first place. “Love is patient” (1 Cor 13:4), begins the apostle when he tries to explain what charity is. Patience is much more than a virtue; it leads to a path of sanctification. Fr. Emmanuel Coquet explains that treating annoyances with charity makes us better people, saying,
Living this sixth work of mercy has a much greater impact than we could have initially imagined, as an almost heroic disposition to bear the burdens of our loved ones. We are put into a state of conversion in order to live according to the Spirit of charity, which allows us to verify that we are not deluding ourselves about our capacity to love. Patience unlocks in us opportunities for conversion and allows us to live this difficulty in a relationship as a path to sanctification.
Besides her method of dealing with those who annoyed her, St. Therese had many other strategies for seeking holiness in little ways. Here are some words of wisdom she wrote about how to love others.