Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
Adam Eitel: Here's a fact of human life. We have sorrow and, in many ways, That's neither here nor there, neither good nor bad, but we know intuitively that there are ways in which our sorrow can become excessive or misplaced. So, what the virtue of patience does is it moderates sorrow or constrains it. And that's why someone like Gregory the Great called patience the guardian of the virtues, because sorrow, if it's not checked, can easily devolve into anger, hatred, and fear. What it means to moderate sorrow isn't to suppress it, or to develop some kind of affected callousness or disenchanted, jaded relation to the things that one actually really loves.
You'll discover really quickly that you can't think about patience—you can't experience patience—without thinking about and experiencing joy. Joy is the antithesis of sorrow—its remedy.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I'm Ryan McAnnally-Linz with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. We're at the midpoint of a series on patience: why it's so hard? What's good about it? And how we might cultivate it? One of the reasons I wanted to explore this virtue in this format is the growing sense of my own impatience, the clear evidence that modern technological culture prefers and valorizes impatience, and my hunch that this difficult virtue can offer us some peace and hope. So we started off framing the issue with Andy Root and Kathryn Tanner, reflecting on our loss of the sacred weight of Time and our struggle to escape time scarcity in a finance-dominated capitalistic economy, where time is money. Last week, we pivoted to thinking more deeply about patience itself, with Paul Dafydd Jones suggesting that it's God's patience that gives time its sacred weight and God's patience that enables human agency at all.
It's impossible to ignore the timing of this series. Life a year into the pandemic lends itself to a kind of numbness, the torpor, the temptation to despair at the thought of reentering and Delta variant lockdown. We waited so long to loosen restrictions. Many of us, myself included, exhibit either denial or dread at diving back into more waiting, more practice with patience. But still we have to wait. And indeed it was my inability to wait, my temptation to hurry and my compulsion to fill every waking moment of life with productivity that was the impetus for this series.
But as we'll learn in today's episode, there's something much deeper than waiting, hurry and busyness that patience corrects. Lurking underneath all of that buzzing activity and urgency is in fact, sorrow. Adam Eitel is an ethicist at Yale Divinity School who specializes in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. In this episode, he and I discussed the human side of the virtue of patience and its place in the moral life, examining how it moderates our passions and responses to sorrow, finding surprising connections between patience, joy, and contemplation, and opening up toward an experiential theology that must comment on patience only from inside the struggle to receive it. Thanks for listening.
Adam. Thanks for coming by and taking some time to talk.
Adam Eitel: I'm happy I'm here.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So you're a scholar of Thomas Aquinas and I thought maybe we could start with you setting the scene. Thomas has some really interesting stuff to say about patience and some stuff that is maybe surprisingly relevant for today, thinking of 700 and something years ago, but set the scene. Where is he thinking about patience? What's the context?
Adam Eitel: How to set the stage? Let's just begin with that honorific, the Angelic Doctor. You hear this about Thomas. It's an apt description, but it gives this impression that he's a man out of time. He's like writing serenely over the hurly burly of history and that's just not the case. His earliest works—and actually all of his works—are born out of intense conflict. At the time he's thinking about patience and indeed the thing that requires him to begin thinking about patience, the virtue, is that he and his brethren—the friars of the Order of Preachers, this newly founded ragtag, amorphousgroup of young men who've taken to the streets of Paris below Cologne and so on and so forth, all the way to the Mongol Empire—they are holed up here in St. Jacques, the convent in Paris. And there are people throwing rocks at the friars. When they leave the convent, they're assaulted with dead animals and straw and feces. And they're utterly despised at this moment in history.
So he's thinking about this thing called patience, this virtue, and the whole collection of virtues that are related to it in the context of deep opposition, deep public hatred. Look, the friars, they have been or on the verge of being canceled. I don't mean that in the loaded sense that it might sound and you might imagine, but it's not a good scene.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: There're ecclesiastical authorities who are after them. There's a kind of popular movement that's been stirred up, not to be so happy with them. And we could have a whole other conversation about why that is what they're doing that seems so controversial. But let's just take that as granted and say, so here Thomas is, and one of the things he wants to say to his fellow friars is there's this thing called patience and it is essential to our life of faith and discipleship and our mission of preaching. A couple of times you said that patience is, for Thomas, a virtue. Could you just really quickly say what's a virtue?
Adam Eitel: Virtue is a habit of the mind, and/or heart that makes a human being good and their work good. It's the thing by which human beings are made praiseworthy, excellent, and in turn, by which their activity, their conduct, their comportment, their way in the world can be rightly described as a kind of excellence. So we think of the cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, fortitude, temperance. These are all virtues in the sense that having them is to have a kind of excellence and to be able in the right context or the right circumstances to do excellent things.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So what kind of virtues is patience in particular? Where does it sit in that schema?
Adam Eitel: Oh, this is a really interesting question. And you can't start all the way at the beginning. All right. Let's start here. For Thomas, virtues are distinguished by a couple of things, namely their matter and their object. Their object is related to their act. The matter of patience is principally—we'll have to unpack this—it's principally sorrow. The matter of a virtue is the thing that it's about, the thing that it regards, the thing that it goes to work on to shape excellently. So here's a fact of human life. We have sorrow. And in many ways, that's neither here nor there, neither good nor bad, but we know intuitively that there are ways in which our sorrow can become excessive or misplaced.
So if I sorrow over your well-being, if you are promoted and I sorrow over that, that's called envy. And that's not a good kind of sorrow. Likewise, if something is genuinely grievous, something that really ought to beckon my sorrow, to elicit it—something doesn't elicit my sorrow that really should, we think there's some kind of short circuit here. There's a lack of sorrow, a hardness of heart. So sorrow can have right and wrong objects. It can also be excessive and it can fall short of a kind of mean. Sorrow, for Thomas, is this passion, this affection, what we today call an emotion and it's elicited by the presence of evil. And here, don't think of, like, Dr. Evil—evil just in the very general sense of something that we apprehend as being bad, something that we apprehend or experience in some way as diminishing our good or the good of someone we love. And look around the world, and the objects of sorrow or the things, I should say, that are liable to generate sorrow in our lives are legion. They're everywhere.
And with every emotion, there's a kind of tendency to access. And what the virtue of patience does is it moderates sorrow or constrains it. So it doesn't go beyond its proper limit. When we become too absorbed in trouble and woe, then a lot of other things start to go wrong. And that's why someone like Gregory the Great called patience the guardian of the virtues because sorrow, if it's not checked, can easily devolve into anger, hatred, and fear. And when those passions become too excessive, then other kinds of virtues begin to deteriorate. We begin to oppose things that we ought not oppose or oppose them in ways that we ought not oppose and so on and so forth. So patience is this virtue that constrains sorrow, and it's a kind of guardian of the virtues in that sense.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: What does it feel like to be patient on this account? What's the sort of thing happening in you is Thomas imagining and hoping might happen in these friars?
Adam Eitel: Wow, that's something I've thought a lot about in the last couple of years. I hope this won't be too much of a digression, but if you know anything about virtue or people who like to think and talk about the virtues, you have some familiarity with virtue theory and the way that virtues are acquired, there are these handy stories that one will tell, like the kind of story you'll read in a book by Alistair McIntire, like After Virtue, where to acquire a virtue, any virtue, it's basically a process of trial and error, and emulation of a worthy exemplar. There are these external goods that initially motivate the enterprise and the hope. And it is a hope. There's a kind of gap here that one has to cross. The hope is that eventually one comes to see the goods internal tothis practice. And that's how you acquire these virtues. So it's a kind of faking it until you make it. That's a bit pejorative, but it's through practice. We become better harpists, as Aristotle says, "how well by playing the harp, so too, we become more just by practicing justice."
So I'm coming back to this question of what's it feels like to be patient, but I first want to register this. What on earth could it mean to gradually expose yourself to sorrow in hopes that one day you're going to acquire this thing called patience and no longer be swamped, overwhelmed, bent, but not broken by it? Sorry, sorrow just doesn't work like that. If you don't have patience in the face of tragedy, it's already too late. Sorrow, especially grievous sorrow, it's just not the kind of thing that you can endure. And it's not like a callus you build up on your hands. It's either there, or it's not right.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: You can't just dip your toes in and you get a little further in. It befalls you.
Adam Eitel: Yeah, so it's interesting to think about patience in this respect because Thomas thinks of it as being a part of fortitude or courage. Courage, at its core, is about the worst kind of difficulties, the worst and most fearful things, and that's the danger of death. Okay. If you think of patience at its core, what it's mainly about, is about the saddest things. That's what it's about. Those are things that no one goes looking for. It's really interesting patience and many other virtues besides patience, but patience is especially interesting because it pushes and, I think, breaks a lot of the models that people have or thinking about what a virtue is, how it's acquired. If you really begin to look at Thomas, look at what he says, look beyond those works like the Summa—if anyone's read any Thomas, they've read that—but if you begin to look at the other things he says, you'll discover really quickly that you can't think about patience, you can't experience patience, without thinking about and experiencing joy.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Why is that? That's a little surprising.
Adam Eitel: Yeah. So joy is the, as far as passions go, antithesis of sorrow. It's a remedy. So joy, for Thomas, is an affection and emotion, a passion evoked by, elicited by, called forth by the presence of some good. So there are many remedies for sorrow, but all of those remedies, Thomas says, will involve in some way putting yourself in the presence of something good in some respect. So he gives us this great big treatise on passions. There was never anything like it before it, and there's never been anything like it again. It's voluminous and it takes up this massive part of the first part of the second part of the Summa. But sorrow is the only passion that he discusses where he pauses in the discourse to give the reader a list of remedies for, and the remedies are roughly in this order: take a bath, go to sleep, drink some wine, talk to a friend. I don't think the idea is if this doesn't work, then do this and this does it. But there's a kind of ascending order of joy, of maximizing.
And at the top of that list is contemplation. It's the contemplation of God. Contemplation for Thomas is this big umbrella term that includes meditation, prayer, meditative reading, the meditative reading of scripture—you might as a stretch even say chanting the Psalms—anything that draws your mind to the goodness of God, to the power of God's presence, to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to the love shed abroad in our hearts that pours forth from the bloodshed for us by Christ on the cross. These things, if we are disposed in the right kind of way, are absolutely good in a way that can call forth our affections so they can elicit joy.
And Thomas says this all the time in the commentary on the Psalms of David—Thomas thinks he's always reading the words of David. David says, "Oh Lord, these guys are trying to kill me. What am I going to do? Their arrows are firing hot and they're coming fast and furiously." And then David will say "if only I had wings to fly like a duck," or something to this effect, or then there's this turn of the discourse toward God. And Thomas will seize on this time and time again and say, "Look! Here David is. He's swamped with sorrow. He's overwhelmedbecause his sons abandoned them and turned on him, because his child has died." And so he'll say, "but what is the cause of his patience? How does he endure?" And he will point to contemplation, toward prayer, toward meditation.
And then he'll start to use phrases like, in his commentary in Psalm 33, the experience of God. When the psalmist says, "taste and see that the Lord is sweet," Thomas says, "Look, the psalmist is exhorting us to an experience of God." And so this is very scandalous to most virtue theorists to think that there would be a virtue that would be. Caused by, by an activity that doesn't really register legibly as a serious activity in modern life. But you can't have patience, or at least not much of it, Thomas thinks, without contemplation.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: That's drawing my mind to some scriptural texts in the New Testament. It's almost like Thomas is saying there's a connection between rejoice in the Lord, always, and then a kind of Pauline emphasis on the ability to bear everything.
Adam Eitel: Yeah. That's right.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: How does connection to the goodness of God—what does it do to sorrow? What do you do to the fact that the kind of evil. Provoke sorrow is still there?
Adam Eitel: I want to come at this question from so many angles, but it might help just take a step back to say something like what it means to moderate sorrow isn't to suppress it, or to develop some kind of effective callousness or disenchanted, jaded relation to the things that one actually really loves. The virtues that go to work on our passions—and not every virtue does, but a lot of them do—they constrain or, in some ways in the case of courage, actually evokes this passion of daring. All right. But the virtues that go to work on the passions, they don't extinguish the passions. That's what Thomas says in his earliest work on patience. They moderate it. That means that patience never means simply ignoring, turning away from the thing that's genuinely sorrowful. It can't be any part of virtue to tell lies about the misery of the world. So that's that.
A concrete object of sorrow can be the sorrow that one experiences can be diminished by attending to other objects, other things that elicit joy. And that doesn't mean that one looks away from the sorrowful things, so to speak, but you nest that sorrowful thing amid other things that are genuinely good and praiseworthy and call forth our affection. Just remember, one of those things that I mentioned is just spending time with your friends. It may sound as I'm talking about it now like this is this purely cognitive activity of moderating in sorrow. It can't be. Sorrow itself really doesn't permit that because it diminishes our cognitive capacities. That's one way of moderating sorrow.
Another way is to modulate one's understanding of the thing that is sorrowful. So this is what Paul is doing, Thomas thinks, in the commentary, I think, on 1 Thessalonians. People have died. People have fallen asleep and we know that this was a surprise to them. And so Paul here is saying something like sorrow but not like you might sorrow if you weren't expecting the resurrection of the dead. That's not just the resuscitation of a body; that's a new vista; that's a new reality that all things are being hastened into, all things you and your loved one. So this isn't false hope. This isn't false consolation. I mentioned the word "hope." This is another passion. In an interesting way, it brings a kind of joy with it in many cases. So you can think, for example, or pray that you can begin to think or ask your friends to remind you, to help you to see something that's grievous genuinely so in a redeemed light.
And so, again, this kind of thrust the virtue of patience back on this whole realm of meditation on Scripture and things like that. What you're doing is, in the technical language of the Scriptum or the Summa, you are building syllogisms and premises in your mind that actually affect the way you see the world. The dead will be raised. So there's the diminishment of sorrow on the one hand by nesting that thing amid things that are joyful, and then modulating in a better accordance with the truth, your understanding of the thing that's bringing the sorrow with it.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Thank you. This is really interesting. Thomas—there's a lot there and you've spent a lot of time with it. And I'm wondering would it be okay if I ask how has it mattered to you? What difference has it made for you to think with Thomas on patience?
Adam Eitel: I don't know how to answer this question except for one way, and it might take me a second to get it out. A couple of years ago, I was working on this chapter on patience and it was like a cake. I was baking. And then un-baking it, un-baking it baking it, and then un-baking, if that were possible. I was living in this chapter and in a way that didn't make much sense to me. Looking back at this now, I kept on hitting these roadblocks and I can just see God's provision in it because as I was trying to finish this chapter on patience,our son was stillborn. He was 39 weeks. His umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and he died and that hit me like a truck and then a bolt of lightning and then a tsunami and wash, rinse, repeat. I'd never experienced something so traumatic and it whittled us down to nothing. And if it were not, I think, for all the thinking I'd been doing, the writing that I'd been trying to do about this virtue, I don't know how I would have been able to withstand the onslaught of the sorrow.
I felt when you read Thomas, you're not just reading Thomas, you're reading this chorus of voices who he makes himself accountable to. And I felt—and I admit this is a very Catholic idea; I confess—but I felt myself surrounded by this great chorus of saints, this great cloud of witnesses who came alive to me. And I began to think about what these people were living through when writing about things like patience and discovered it really is this kind of thing that you can write about really only from the inside of. Not that I've written very much about it since, but it wasn't out of some superior insight on my part where I was thinking, "man, I'd better know what patience is and I'd better have a bit of it in order to live my life,but I'm fortunate." And I won't call myself a patient man, in the sense I'm using it now, but I felt carried by grace through those moments, those days and months, and I suppose even a year or more by God's grace that was illuminating for me—the things that I'd been marinating in on the topic.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Thanks for sharing that story. I'm wondering if we might end by just giving you an opportunity to speak directly to a listener. And just what exhortation would you give with this conversation kind of rattling around in the back of your head? What would be like the word of encouragement or exhortation that you would offer to close?
Adam Eitel: Nowadays, we talk about patience colloquially and by it, we mean something like a person's capacity to remain calm in the face of delay or agitation. And that has a remote relationship to patience as we've been describing it. But it's not so remote. We get agitated by delay and by things that are agitating. So the two-part exhortation would be on the one hand: isn't it interesting and might it not be useful to stop and ask beneath this agitation—which is low grade kind of anger—might there be something more basic, some sorrow? What has been lost? What am I wanting that's not here? What has been taken away that was here? What's beneath the anger, some kind of sorrow?What is it? And that question is just worked up right out of the theoretical relations between the passions or the affections or emotions. That's the first part.
The second part is to find that verse of Scripture that is for you a kind of anchor in the soul for patience and let it become yours, and let God speak to you through it over and over again.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: It's been really great having you.
Adam Eitel: Thanks Ryan.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: We've been through four installments of our six-episode series on patience. Having now framed the cultural and economic predicament of our broken relationship to time and examined both divine and human patience and their role in modern life, in the final episodes of this series, we'll turn to the practical question of how patience is acquired and how it's expressed in a flourishing life. That starts next week with a look at the psychology of patience. Thanks for listening and working through this series with us.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured ethicist, Adam Eitel, and theologian, Ryan McAnnally-Linz. Production assistance by Martin Chan and Nathan Jowers. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday with the occasional midweek. If you're new to the show, so glad that you found us. Remember to hit subscribe, so you don't miss any episodes. And if you've been listening for a while, thank you, friends. If you're liking what you're hearing, I've got a request. Would you support us? It's pretty simple, really, and won't take much time. Here are some ideas:
First, you can hit the share button for this episode in your app and send a text or email to a friend, or share it to your social feed. Second, you could give us an honest rating on Apple Podcasts. How are we really doing? Finally, you could write a short review of the show in Apple Podcasts. Reviews are cool because they'll help like-minded people get an idea for what we're all about, and what's most meaningful to you, our listeners. Thanks for listening today, friends. We'll be back with more this coming week.