[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 23 July 2009.]
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us. — Psalm 123:1-2
“Hold on,” I cautioned the lanky teen sprawled on the foredeck of my tiny sailboat, “I can see some wind ahead of us!” Nick sat up just as the sail caught the wind; the boat heeled over on its side and we started to fly across the lake. As he — and the boat — regained their equilibrium he wondered, “Mrs. Donnay, how can you see the wind?”
I can’t see the wind, of course, but I can see the ripples on the surface of the lake and watch the sails of nearby boats as a growing breeze fills them. I also know this lake, where the winds are likely to blow down through the valley, where there will be shadows from the hills, when the winds will rise and fall during the day.
A couple of weeks later I was out alone and found myself on the far side of the lake when the wind dropped to a whisper. Hoping I would not need to engage the “auxiliary engine” and paddle the half-mile back to shore, I paid attention to every ripple. My eyes were like the eyes of a handmaiden on the hands of her mistress, watching for any sign that wind was on its way. In the end, all I could do was set my sails to wait for the wind and my soul to wait on God’s grace and mercy.
I had a lot of time to contemplate grace, mercy — and patience — as I ghosted across the water. I thought of a Carmelite friend who had shared with me St. John of the Cross’ concept of unrushable grace, perfectly suited to the present moment.
Imprisoned for his support of St. Teresa of Avila’s reforms, John spent nine months in a dark and airless cell. He had no window, but just enough light came through a small grate at the top to allow him to pray his Office each day. God granted him no more or less than he needed for that moment.
Reflecting on St. John of the Cross in a series of letters collected in “Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence,” the 18th century Jesuit spiritual director Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote, all the “duties of the present moment are marked along its course, one by one they will fulfill them unconfused, unhurried … waiting always to obey the stirrings of grace as soon as they make themselves known....”
De Caussade’s gentle description aside, this can be a difficult way to live. I recall that Job set his course firmly; he was not confused, his eyes on God even in the midst of unrelenting travail. Job knew God like I know the local waters. He knew what signs to look for, where to expect to find God. Yet even Job could not detect the slightest sign that God’s grace was present in his suffering, or even that such grace, like a puff of wind moving across the water, was on the way. All he could do was continue to watch, and call for God’s mercy.
Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if “[T]his is how faith looks sometimes: a blunt refusal to stop speaking into the divine silence.” Waiting on grace is a matter not only of patience, but also of faith.
A brisk wind never did appear that afternoon, despite my expectations. With barely enough breeze to fill my sail, I moved imperceptibly across the water. There was just enough wind — and grace — to get me back home before nightfall. In place of the wind, God’s breath on the waters taught me a bit of what it meant to wait on grace, as on the wind.
Lord God, strength of those who hope in you, support us in our prayer: because we are weak and can do nothing without you, give us always the help of your grace so that, in fulfilling your commandments, we may please you in all we desire and do. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. — Concluding Prayer for Morning Prayer, Sunday Week 11.