Winter 1990, Vol.42 No. 4, pp. 292-302.

Suzanne Mayer:
      The Poverty of Waiting and its Riches

Although there are many forms of waiting, active waiting, hallmark of Advent, opens us to the Word.

Sister Suzanne Mayer, IHM has previously worked as an English teacher and counselor in several of the high schools and the college her community staffs. Recently, she began full-time studies in the doctoral program in pastoral counseling at Loyola College in Maryland.

I had so little time to love him, and that love has survived all these years of separation . . . I saw him frequently when he was underground. We had a very dramatic life. I waited for that sacred knock at the window in the early hours of the morning. I never had an appointment.
Winnie Mandela (1)
God waits like a beggar who stands motionless and silent before someone who will perhaps give him a piece of bread. Time is that waiting. Time is God's waiting for our love . . . . By waiting humbly we are made similar to God.
Simone Weil (2)

THE words of the first statement come from the lips of a South African activist, anti-apartheid worker and the wife of the recently-released Nelson Mandela. She speaks of the emptiness of life imposed by his twenty-seven-year absence as an untried political prisoner and of the time during their early days when his fugitive status forced sporadic visits, days she held in a kind of frozen animation -- her waiting time.

The second reflection was penned by a young Jewish French philosopher who died prematurely during World War lI. She has been called a saint and a lunatic, a prophet and a fanatic, an ascetic and an eccentric -- and she has written one of the most penetrating and insightful treatises on "waiting on God" in contemporary thought.

What bonds tie this first woman, a black campaigner for freedom in the 1970's and 1980's, to the second, a scholarly teacher turned factory worker of the 1940's? These are women whose vision penetrates beyond the here and now, beyond the temporary imposition of forced waiting to the mystery, eternal and immutable, which it prefigures.


What is waiting? Who waits? For what? And, why wait, at all? Maria Boulding, a contemporary English religious and writer, notes: "Human life is full of waiting; people wait for trains, busses or planes; they stand in queues at shops; they sit nervously in dentists' waiting rooms; they wait in anguish for news of a lost loved one." (3) Waiting is part of the human condition, a part of growth and time. But all waiting is not the same. There is a waiting in life that stultifies and destroys and a waiting that sacramentalizes and strengthens. For waiting to become significant and sanctifying in an individual's life, mystery and meaning, wonder and watchfulness must be woven, warp and woof, into the fabric of waiting. The Church, in the rich wisdom of its rites and the rhythm of its seasons, taps into the sacred aspects of waiting in the preparation time of Advent, a pregnant four weeks that prelude the celebration of the Incarnation and that prefigure the parousia. To enter wholly and hohly into the spirit of Advent, an understanding of the kinds of waiting and the dimensions of fruitful waiting is necessary.

As with any human phenomena, the attitudes and actions of waiting range the full spectrum from grace-filled to soul-destroying. In his short story "Eveline" from the collection Dubliners, James Joyce draws a picture of one kind of waiting. Bound within the limits of "dusty cretonne," ancient mementos, weariness, and "crippling" defeat, the title character fears making a choice. With escape lying before her in the shape of a ship to Buenos Aires and love beckoning in the call of her Frank, Eveline stands paralyzed with dread, unable to break the bonds of past and duty. "She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition."(4)

Such waiting, marked by inordinate fear, truncated vision and desperation, is that motivated by "learned helplessness," a seeming unwillingness or inability to move out of the waiting mode and take action. In the late 1960's and early 1970's a series of psychological experiments under the direction of M. Seligman showed the effects on subjects administered repeated, inescapable electrical shocks. After extensive conditioning, the subjects, usually dogs, ceased to search for relief or. release, even when presented with the means to escape. The results of these now classic animal studies have been extended to explain various states of depression, academic failure and even Skid Row derelicts. The researchers theorize that certain individuals with a history of repeated failure in their early development become locked into states of passivity and helplessness in which fruitless waiting becomes a condition of their low self-worth and even despair.

This is a view of life seen by a victim waiter, a person bound within his/her own limits, boundaries set not so much by the world as by his/her perception of it. Like the "hollow men" of T.S. Eliot's poem, they crave, not dream, and spend their energy in barren toil, their words "quiet and meaningless/ As wind in dry grass."(5) Like Eveline in Joyce's vignette, who closes her eyes at each epiphany of the present only to image haunting memories of the past that signify entrapment, the vision of the paralyzed and passive waiter is one of ever-narrowing myopia. Like the multi-stunned animals of the Seligman studies, their responses issue from fear, a need to avoid pain, and hopelessness. The only reaction of which they seem capable, cowering withdrawal, backs them ever deeper into their corners, away from a world over which they exert no control.

The miasma of defeat into which these victims sink mirrors the state of darkness and entrapment that Constance FitzGerald calls 'impasse' in her modern treatment of St. John of the Cross' dark night theology. She sees spiritual 'impasse' as very much akin to "physical imprisonment . . . . an experience of being squeezed into a confined space. Any movement out, any next step is canceled, and the most dangerous temptation is to give up, to quit."(6)


This sterile waiting and concomitant withdrawal is not that of Winnie Mandela lying in her Brandfort shack, holding her breath in anticipation of her husband's pre-dawn knock. Nor is it the contemplative centering on God that Simone Weils 'attente' demands. The waiting these two women epitomize is that which redeems and is characterized as the antithesis of all that marks the passive waiter. A major feature of Eveline, Seligman's subjects, of all who wait in "learned helplessness" is that they stand rooted in time past and time present, unable to break free of the constraints of history and daily circumstances. Weil denounces such a fixation, for "to be rooted in past or present is to confine the mystery of life."(7) Her attitude of 'attente; really a concept beyond translation, includes an active looking for God that penetrates space and time with the burning probe of the visionary and the intense focus of the mystic as the person focuses on a single point of concentration. The attentive waiter assumes the stance of the biblical prophet, peering into the there and then, the here and now and discerning in these a future still being fashioned by God. Such a searching vision destroys the hold that conditioned defenses and defeatist outlooks impose on the waiter as her searcher reaches the "truth, the real" on the condition that his/her 'attente' be a "looking and not an attachment."(8)

In considering the one caught in 'impasse; FitzGerald also speaks of reaching truth through a paradoxical breakthrough she calls "imaginative shock" Denied escape through all the ordinary routes of "first order responses," those of logic, analysis and reason, the waiter in 'impasse' looks to the light not at the end of the tunnel but the light buried within the tunnel itself and explodes into "second order responses;" a release of unconscious right-brained imaginings. This comes, says FitzGerald, "if one can yield in the right way, responding with full consciousness of one's suffering in the impasse, yet daring to believe new possibilities, beyond immediate vision, can be given" (270). This, too, describes the prophetic vision.


Persons able to balance such extremes of height and depth, of waiting-to-act and acting-to-wait as demanded by 'attente' are rare, yet in the early chapters of Luke's gospel several rise to prominence. His prophetic figures, aged Zechariah and Elizabeth, enduring Simeon and Anna, and even the anonymous persona of the shepherds and kings, are all drawn as waiters with a purpose. Each of these emerges from a religious tradition of expectancy, from a people formed by a promise. Each stands hesitant, poised at the incarnational moment, surrounded by a present infused with possibilities only such as they are alert to sense. Each faces obstacles as insurmountable and deterrent as any range of negative stimuli -- barriers of age and barrenness, world and work weariness, confusion and doubt. Yet each refuses to allow either external or internal factors to delay or destroy the realization of the promise. In so doing, they disdain the trivializing that other characters met in the Nativity narratives allow to mar the message. They reject the temptation offered by high priests and scribes to reduce the promise to empty, archaic phrases worthy only of archival interest (Matt 2:4-5). They avoid the Herodian paranoia that hears the words of the promise as threat, and so they "take another road home" (Matt 2:12). Rather, the prophetic waiters on the Word, each weak and wounded, scan the heavens with eyes of wonder, pause to catch the nuances of divine whispers and so lean into the future. For them, as for Weil's attender, "in the end the illusions are scattered and the real becomes visible" (58).

And so the Word became flesh,
and made his dwelling among us,
and we have seen his glory (John 1:14).
Characteristic of these Advent waiters who do apprehend the Word is a certain patience in the midst of trial, a willingness to wait. This patience is a word loaded with meaning that traces its origins to the early Greek philosophers' hypomone [xxxxxx] (in Latin, patientia). Scriptural exegesis considers this patientia under two aspects. In one interpretation, it expresses the forbearance modeled by the holy ones of the Old Testament, the 'erek 'appayim [], literally those "long in the nose" and so "slow to anger." This is the virtue recommended by St. Paul as one of the fruits of the Spirit (I Thes 5:14, Gal 5:22) and seen as an effect of charity (I Cor 13:4). This "knowing how to wait" is a practice and prerogative attributed to divine as well as human forbearance as seen in Weil's opening quote in which she draws the analogy between the ever-loving God and a beggar importuning for bread.

The other interpretation of patientia, more properly termed 'endurance' (or hypomone), is an exclusively human virtue. It is the hope-filled waiting exemplified by long-suffering Job (in Jm 5:11) and advised by Paul to his communities in anticipation of the parousia (I Thes 1:3, Rom 5:3, Heb 10:32). Peter goes so far as to name this the only true sacrifice acceptable to God as worship (I Pt 2:20) and Paul unites it with Jesus' redemptive mission, calling on his followers to endure as did the Christ of the cross (Heb 12:1 ff).

The powerful connection between Jesus and the Christian waiter is one that Weil touches on in the intensity of focus that proves the hallmark of 'attente.' This stance is one of profound attitude turned, totally and unswervingly, to God, like the tropism of the plant to light or the mystic to the Master. In her Waiting on God she writes:

The slave, who waits near the door so as to open immediately [when] the master knocks, is the best image of [attente]. He must be ready to die of hunger and exhaustion rather than change his attitude. It must be possible for his companions to call him, talk to him, hit him, without his even turning his head. Even if he is told that the master is dead, and even if he believes it, he will not move. If he is told that the master is angry with him and will beat him when he returns, and if he believes it, he will not move. (10)
Such waiting submerges the "I" into the whole of the encounter that is its process. This transforming submission has its realization only and always in the person of Jesus whose kenosis opens the way to salvation. Jesus, in taking on human flesh, did more than submerge the divine "I" with all its prerogatives and powers into mortal frailty and sinfulness. He, the God beyond all space and time, entered into the constraints of human boundaries -- geographic, cultural, temporal, socio-economic those of a circumscribed world and an enslaved people to break the strangle-hold such limits placed on the human condition and its grace-filled development. And even more demeaning, his embodiment took on the status of the most marginalized and despised of that world. He came as anawim to the anawim. What does this mean? Literally, anawim is the biblical term for the "lowly remnant;" the few hangers-on in Israel living in the midst of enslavement, abandonment and misery who still looked with hope to a coming blessedness. These wretched few waiters held to the belief that the Messiah was coming, in fact, may be already alive in their midst.

If Jesus' choice of this particular group of waiters and the human disenfranchisement that marks them holds any message for Advent waiters of today it must be to point to a paradoxical wealth hidden in the midst of their poverty. He came as the poorest of the poor to the poorest of the poor to make them rich with a wealth the world still despises. Without romanticizing the condition of the socially outcast nor ignoring the cost inhuman suffering of the poor, Thomas Clarke in a penetrating look at the real "option for the poor," states that if the poor can resist the temptation to turn their vision from God in an "illusory quest" for material security, "their condition by its very desperateness seems to contain an openness to God's rescuing love that is denied to others."11 In their vulnerability the poor draw the Incarnate God into their midst and so need gives birth to the Word.

This quality of openness seems so much a part of hope-filled waiting as to be considered essential. While the passive waiter, the person trapped in "learned helplessness," holds onto his/her vestiges of control with deadening rigidity, the spiritual waiter breathes with a freedom of the Spirit, a letting go to let God. Such is the attitude of the Advent waiter par excellence, Mary, who in her Fiat moment allows God to define her life and cries, "Let it be done to me as God wills" (Lk 1:38).


As Clarke's paradox underscores, so often the very demeaning conditions that condemn the poor become the refining fires that forge them into open waiters on the Word, today as in the time of the anuwim. The poor wait with open hands for most of their lives. Their days are fashioned with a forced dependency on the powers above them. They wait for relief to come in the form of food stamps or a social worker's report. They depend on a clinic's being established nearby so they may get help for their weak and sick one, and then they depend on some authority to allow it to function. They wait for busses because they have no cars, for spring because winter's cold is cruel without enough heat. They wait for the haves of the world to notice the desperate straits of the have-nots and to work to rectify these.

So in their powerlessness the faces of the poor reflect so many aspects of the ancient waiters on the Word -- their endurance, their focus, their leaning into the future, their almost breathless expectancy and urgency. It is into their eyes filled with misery and mystery that an Advent Church must gaze to scatter illusions and envision truth. If the universal Church of power and prestige, and the individual member who is Church wrapped in comfort and security aims to be the Christ of the poor, this Church must minister to the Christ who is poor. Each member must come to know that the "poor who you will always have with you" stand as more than a constant reminder that He came. They are still and ever the place where He comes. In the same article, Clark says, they "announce what is, by God's gracious doing, and what ought to be brought about by our graced response" (99).

That such an envisioning is needed is no less than a biblical mandate. That such an envisioning is possible depends on the willingness of the believer to enter into an experience of spiritual waiting, of 'impasse.' As FitzGerald declares, "Only, an experi ence like this, coming out of the soul's dark night, brings about the kind of solidarity and compassion that changes the 'I' into a 'we; enabling one to say 'we poor; 'we oppressed; 'we exploited.' The poor are objects until we are poor, too" (298). Faced not only with personal 'impasse' as we turn toward God but an ever-growing awareness of a world-filled societal 'impasse' crying out for God, the need for hope-filled visionaries and compassionate waiters on the Word is more desperate than ever before. The individual alive with possibilities triggered by the impulse of imaginative shock born in the depths of dark night will become the modern-day prophet who bears within him/herself the vital paradox -- the dreamer grounded on the solid foundation of 'attente; the waiter ready to act.

As Advent prepares for the celebration of the historical coming of the Christ, so too does it herald the final coming of Christ "in glory and power forever and ever Amen!" (Rev 1:6). This parousia moment climaxes all the parts and paradoxes of the waiter into the "faithful witness" (Rev. 1:5). It incorporates in the apocalyptic vision not a finale but an end that is a begin ning, "the Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who is to come" (Rev. 1:8). It culminates not in an end of time, but a transformation of known time, or as T.S. Eliot calls it in his Four Quartets "the point of intersection of the timeless with time . . . the moment in and out of time. " And who stands at the faithful witness to the wedding of all opposites, who receives the "white stone" of endurance (Rev 2:17) and the mark of election (Rev 20:4)? Again, Eliot names it "as the occupation for the saint No occupation either, but something given/ And taken, in a lifetime's death in love, Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender."(12) FitzGerald points to the same ending-nonending in her conclusion to 'impasse' when she writes that the ultimate result of 'impasse' is prayer. "Impasse provides a challenge and concrete focus for prayer and drives us to contemplation" (301). The Advent waiter then is a listener, a lover and a prayer who, cognizant of the overwhelming majesty and misery the world displays, has recourse not to the images of God already among us but to the God who is still to come.

Finally then, the true portrait of the Advent waiter is not that of the Apocalyptic horsemen but of two insignificant village women. In that scriptural pericope called the Visitation, two of the anawim stand together seeking support and strength from each other as they wait. The Virgin Mother encounters the barren-one-made-full, and these two witnesses to poverty stand in total vulnerability and expectant fullness. Having apprehended and welcomed the Word, their subsequent act is to form a community around it, a community of worship and ministry and so they become Word to each other as does the life each bears. And the Word who is God calls to the one who will herald God, and the prophet-to-come leaps to life in the knowing and naming.

What Mary and Elizabeth do for each other the active attender must do in imitation of all the poor who wait on the Word. In order to be free to listen, not just to words but to every nuanced gesture, silent cry or pregnant pause, the attender must be truly free and open. She/he must wait open-hearted, ready in the poverty of not having all the answers, eager to discover the message of the present moment, leaning toward the future. Like the poor who have only the options readily before them, the waiter who is in tune with 'attente' seizes each word, search- ing for the truth, and in the searching she/he finds the beauty bound up in the simple things -- a word, a look, a gesture.

  1. Winnie Mandela, Part of My Soul Went With Him (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1984), 72.

  2. George A. Panichas, ed., The Simone Weil Reader (New York: David McKay Company, 1977), 424.

  3. Maria Bolding, The Coming of God (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982), 39.

  4. James Joyce, "Eveline" in Dubliners (New York: The Modern Press, 1954), 48.

  5. T. S. Eliot, "Hollow Men" in Collected Poems -- 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 79, lines 7-8.

  6. Constance FitzGerald, "Impasse and Dark Night" in Women's Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 288.

  7. Celine Nally, "Waiting for God," Spiritual Life 25 (Summer 1979), 72.

  8. Simone Well, Gravity and Grace in Charles Stewart- Robertson, "Philosophical Reflections on the Obligation to Attend," Philosophy Today (Spring 1987), 58.

  9. Louis Hartmann, ed., Encyclopedia Dictionary of the Bible (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 1759.

  10. Simone Weil, Waiting on God, Trans. Emma Crawford (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1951), 128.

  11. Thomas Clarke, "Option for the Poor: A Reflection" America (30 Jan 1988), 98.

  12. T. S. Eliot, "Dry Salvages," 198-199, lines 201-207.