Waiting as spiritual practice

By Kathy Berken

When I was in high school, I prayed for patience. Yes, be careful what you pray for! For the last 50 or so years, I’ve been placed in situations that have tested and tested and tested my patience.

It wasn’t until I began working at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton, that my prayer was answered. I did a lot of waiting for core members to get dressed, to eat a meal, to walk to the library with me, to communicate a thought I could understand.

Back when I was young, I don’t think I knew the truth that patience is born of practice. But I know it now, especially in this era of unusual uncertainty. I’ve been doing a whole lot of waiting lately, and have begun to use that time as a spiritual practice.

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In this time of quarantine, I’ve been making kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, bread and vanilla extract. There is a lot of waiting for these foods to get to the stage of eating, so I faithfully wait for the kefir and yogurt to incubate, for the sauerkraut to ferment, for the bread to rise and for the vanilla extract to, well, become vanilla extract.

I do not have to do much while I wait, except check the sauerkraut for stray pieces, check the cabbage to make sure it stays submerged, and shake the mixture of vanilla beans and vodka every few days to keep the soaking process going. Lest you think I took up bread making these past couple of months to mimic others who are at home, think not. I’ve been making bread since my mother taught me as a little girl.

I am also doing a lot of waiting for more serious things than watching yeast grow in flour. I am waiting for this pandemic to end, for a time when I can visit my family, hug my children and grandchildren, attend gatherings without fear of getting infected, return to my church and feel the community spirit as we worship together.

I also have done a lot of waiting in line. Just this week, I waited outside an Aldi’s to shop, outside the UPS store to drop off a box, at my bank drive-up window for quarters, and for my old computer to connect to yet another Zoom meeting.

As I stood outside at Aldi’s wearing a blue mask, holding my grocery bags, waiting for my turn to get a clean cart, I stopped fretting about how I have a hard time breathing in that mask. I stopped fretting about whether anybody in the store would have the virus that I might get, or if the shelves would have the food on my list. For one moment, I stood there, opened my mouth and took a breath and thought of Jesuit Father Anthony de Mello’s teaching about awareness and the book of the same name that I have treasured for years. I’ve heard this word used a lot lately in some other circles on spirituality, and said to myself, “Find yourself aware right now, right here.”

Standing in the hot sun, watching shoppers exit the door as the store employee wiped down the cart and motioned for the next person to enter, I immediately felt a moment of peace. I don’t have to be aware of anything in particular; I just have to be aware that I am present in this moment, standing here with other shoppers, connected with everyone on the planet.

It struck me right then that all this waiting — not just the kind we do at Advent, waiting for the Christ Child to be born again in our hearts — is for my spiritual growth. Praying at that moment to be aware, to be conscious of the present moment, a space where God is always present. It was almost mystical.

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch.)


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