April 10, 2006
Julian Meditations

March, 2006


by Ronald Rolheiser

SOME YEARS AGO, before the demise of communism in the Soviet Union, I was involved in a bizarre incident that helped highlight for me our culture's struggle with patience. I was journeying to the U.S.S.R. with a group of Western tourists. We arrived in Moscow on a snowy December evening, cleared customs, and moved toward our connecting flight to St. Petersburg. Then, for reasons never explained to us, we were made to wait . . . for twenty-four hours.

Hundreds of other people also waited in the airport that night. Only our group, the Westerners, appeared to be in a panic. We rushed from desk to desk, demanding explanations and phoning embassies. Blood pressures and temperatures ran high and there was the constant expression of indignation: "Nobody can do this to us! We don't have to put up with this!"

What was enlightening about this event was that it was soon clear who in that airport was from the West and who was not. We were angry, impatient, and contemptuous. The Eastern Europeans, on the other hand, waited passively. They smoked, played cards, and drank vodka. Obviously, they were used to waiting. A day later, our flight to St. Petersburg was announced and our vigil was over. Except that it had not been a vigil. From beginning to end, we had fought the waiting and seen it as an imposition on our rights. Later, in a more reflective moment, I was able to see in this incident an important lesson.

Just as we rushed around that airport convinced that nobody or nothing had a right to deny us what we wanted, so too we rush about our lives refusing to wait for things, refusing to live in any tension, convinced that nobody or nothing has a right to deny us what we want.

We see the effect of this impatience in our economics, in our sexual morality, and in our constant tendency to seize, as by right, what is by nature a gift. There is in our culture an inability to wait and, in this, a lack of chastity that is severely debilitating to contemplation.

Chastity is normally defined as having to do with sex, namely, a certain innocence, purity, discipline, or even celibacy. This definition is too narrow. Chastity is not primarily a sexual concept. It has to do with the limits and appropriateness of all experience, the sexual included. To be chaste means to experience all things respectfully and to drink them in only when we are ready for them. We break chastity when we experience anything irreverently or prematurely. All irreverence and prematurity violate chastity.

Experience can be good or bad. It can glue the psyche together or tear it apart. It can produce joy or chaos. Travel, reading, achievement, sex, exposure to novelty, the breaking of taboos, all can be good, if experienced reverently and at their proper time. Conversely, they can tear the soul apart (even when they are not wrong in themselves) when they are not experienced chastely, that is, when they are experienced in a way that does not fully respect the other person or object that is the subject of the experience, or that does not respect our own integration


Taken from The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering A Felt Presence of God (New York: Crossroads, 2004), pp. 44-46.