Thursday, May 19, 2022
The Hidden Virtue of Perseverance
"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
For nearly two years I’ve been working on a writing project about the decisive moments in life when we learn to be brave. I’m nearing the end of the first draft, and the topic I’m writing about now is perseverance, which is timely, given how slow my progress has been. More than once I’ve wondered if I have what it takes to see this endeavor through to completion.
I’ve often thought of perseverance as a hidden virtue, in that we rarely see what others have gone through to be able to do what seems effortless to us, what it costs them to carry on when tired or discouraged or to start again after failure or disappointment. We don’t talk often enough about what the entrepreneur Scott Belsky described as “The Messy Middle” – the hardest stretch in any creative or faith-inspired endeavor.
“What’s in the middle?” Belsky asks. “Nothing headline-worthy yet everything important: your war with self-doubt, a roller coaster of incremental successes and failures, bouts of the mundane, and sheer anonymity. The middle is seldom recounted and all blends together in a blur of exhaustion. . . Success is misattributed to the moments we wish to remember rather than those we choose to forget. We’re left with the misconception that a successful journey is logical. But it never is.”1
There is a heart component to perseverance, which Jesus emphasized when teaching his disciples about prayer. He typically did so by telling outrageous stories, such as the one about a man who kept pounding on the door of a friend’s house in the middle of the night demanding bread, and of a widow who incessantly hounded a judge for the justice she deserved. These characters are hardly saints, as if to underscore that fact there is nothing visibly admirable about perseverance; it’s more akin to grit and dogged effort. The reason Jesus told these parables, according to the Gospel of Luke, was to encourage his disciples to pray continually and not lose heart. (Luke 18) Jesus knew that life can be hard, disappointments are real, and at times we’re all bound to feel discouraged.
In church this Sunday, we’ll continue reading from the portion of John’s Gospel known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse (chapters 14-17). The scene here is Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, where he speaks words of encouragement that he hopes will help them persevere in faith after he’s gone. Don’t worry, he tells them. I’m leaving, but you won’t be alone. He tells them that someone else will be with them, whom he calls “the Advocate”--another name for the Holy Spirit. The Advocate will help them remember all that Jesus taught and give them his peace and strength, even in the most turbulent times. These are words we can hold onto, as reassurance that we’re not alone, either, and that, in the words of the Apostle, the One who began a good work within and among us will see it through to completion.
Your diocesan staff spent two days this week taking stock of the incremental goals we set for the first four months of 2022 and setting our sights on the next three months’ work. It has become part of the rhythm of our year to have these regular check-ins, a practice that helps us stay focused on the overarching five-year goals the diocese committed to in 2020 as we live through the contingencies and demands of our daily work. More than once in the last three years, we’ve all felt discouraged and overwhelmed, and the all-too familiar dread of working really hard with little to show for our efforts. But each time we pause and take stock, we realize that we have made progress, although never as cleanly or quickly as we had imagined, and that we’ve learned things that inform our next steps.
We’re learning the importance of celebrating our accomplishments, no matter how small; reflecting deeply on both our missteps and insights; and continually opening ourselves to the Holy’s Spirit’s inspiration. And as the summer approaches, we’re reminded that this is also a time to rest, support our leaders, and savor moments of joy.
In a small book of essays exploring the deeper meaning of everyday words, David Whyte defines courage as “what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.”2 The same is surely true of perseverance–it is the daily commitment to live as if the inspiration and dreams that propelled us are trustworthy, even when we don’t feel it, and to trust the slow, steady work of God.
1Scott Belsky, The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 7.
2David Whyte, Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words Kindle Version, 220.