The Way of Waiting

The Way of Waiting

The gift of waiting may at first seem like a curse, but I have learned that it is actually a gift. 


My sister volunteers at a hospice in the heart of Washington, D.C. She told me about a dying man with whom she sat. He had been referred to the hospice by an urban hospital. They had very little information about the man, except for his medical prognosis which included the probability that he had, at most, three weeks to live. He had been unwilling although not unable to give them any family history or anything relevant to himself. He was silent to the end.

As my sister sat with him the afternoon he arrived, she reached out to hold his hand which lay on top of the cover. His only acknowledgement of her gesture was to remove his hand and put it under the cover. She remained still, with her hand where it was, in presence and in prayer. After an hour or so, he took his hand from under the cover and reached for hers. Shortly after, he died.

In the end, this man chose to be connected. He chose not to die alone. At least in part he made that choice because my sister had the wisdom to wait. Her capacity for presence, for silence, her capacity for waiting with compassion and freedom, freed him.

Waiting is active

Waiting is not passive. Rather it is an active expression of belief.

This kind of knowing has its roots in silence, that deep interior quiet which renders the bearer a signifier of the sacred. Silence is at the heart of waiting. As Martin Laird says, “Silence is an urgent necessity for us; silence is necessary if we are to hear God speaking in eternal silence; our own silence is necessary if God is to hear us.”1 And so, by discipline and by practice, we cultivate silence until eventually inner quiet in the midst of busyness becomes who we are. Then we are open to the grace of silence, to those moments which call us spontaneously to inner stillness, and beyond.

Waiting becomes a way of knowing, knowing that as we wait, as we ostensibly do nothing, something is happening. Waiting is not passive. Rather it is an active expression of belief. It is not inertia. It has its own energy, a quiet energy, lodged in intuition and imagination, imperceptible to those who need a quick and noisy fix. It is not attached to expectations. It has none. It simply engages us in a quiet process, moment by moment, event by event, one insight leading to another, until eventually we find ourselves face-to-face with a new possibility, something we did not know before, or, perhaps, something we knew but did not know we knew.

Years ago, when I was a young college English teacher, a former student who lived in urban Baltimore came to see me with her three-year-old daughter, Jai. It was during the Christmas holidays and the campus was very quiet. We met in a faculty lounge where the halls, then empty, were usually busy with student traffic. Jai talked easily, chattering about her doll, the tree lights, and anything that struck her. However, everything she said she whispered. When I asked Marie why Jai was whispering, Marie said simply, ”She’s never been in a quiet place before.” Quiet begets reverence, even in a three-year-old.

“We enter this land of silence by the silence of surrender. . . ,” 2 and for most of us surrender is a struggle. While intellectually we know that most suffering is caused by resistance to what is, we still behave as though, in order not to suffer, we must change what is. Consequently, we engage in strategies to reconfigure reality which will not be reconfigured. In essence, we refuse to surrender. One refusal generates another, until, finally, we refuse the ultimate reality, which with us or without us is going to happen. Throughout this process of a lifetime, reality has not adjusted to our denial or to our demands; it has remained true to what it is. It is ours either to yield to things as they are or to compromise our stance before God.

What is is not always it appears to be

This call to surrender is not to imply that passivity is the law of the land. Surrender can command us to action. What is is not always what it appears to be. What we are called to can be resistance to appearances. To know the difference is to know ourselves, and to have the freedom to act in accord with a discerning heart. And thus we return to the practice of waiting.

I recall a summer day about ten years ago. I was living in urban Baltimore, just a few miles west of the harbor. It was early morning and I was trying to be about prayer but I was distracted by some event of the previous day that had apparently disturbed me more than I realized. I was having an internal “dialogue” with the person with whom I had had the altercation. I felt myself getting more and more unsettled. Finally I gave up and decided to drive to the harbor for a soothing early morning walk along the water.

As I approached a landing where the water taxies arrive, I saw a large man whom I recognized as a “regular” at the harbor. Using the landing as a platform, he was waving his arms and speaking loudly. In front of him sitting very still was a congregation of several dozen pigeons listening attentively to the tirades of an obviously disturbed person. I told myself to circle widely around the man, that there was possible danger here. And then I recalled my prayer time of less than an hour before. I knew that the only difference between this man and me was a degree of discretion.

Implicit in waiting is the capacity for listening, listening to the said and the unsaid, to the disturbances within as well as to the silences. Waiting means being present to it all, to the cacophony of inner diatribe as well as to the quiet and steady rhythm of grace. Most of all it means being willing not to make things happen simply out of default. We are generally efficient at fixing things, at arranging and managing events as well as people, at programming the future. If we insist, God will permit us to take over. What we are left with, however, is our plans, often frail and always human.

On the other hand, if we learn to wait God will show us. Truth will manifest itself. But wait we must. Wisdom will not be rushed. Nor can God be heard in the noisy chambers of a crowded heart. And in the end it is God we are about.

Wisdom in waiting

Wisdom will not be rushed.

I once heard a New York cop talk about his first days on duty. He was assigned as a rookie to an older cop, about to retire. They were on their beat near the Holland Tunnel where there was a massive traffic jam, with all of the accompanying horn-blowing, shouting, cursing, and fist-shaking. Alarmed, the younger cop asked his mentor, “Now what do we do?” The older man surveyed the situation and then replied with ease, “Now we go out for coffee.” They did and when they returned traffic was running smoothly.

There are times, of course, when we cannot go out for coffee, when waiting is not an option. Action cannot be deferred. It is at those times that our habit of waiting yields results. All of the underlying wisdom that has gathered in the alcoves of the heart will define the action we must take. We will intuitively know what to do. And we will do it, quietly and decisively.

Sometimes the decisions we make after waiting are no different than the ones we would make without that space of waiting. What is different, however, is the place out of which we make them. The process of prayerful waiting is generally an antidote to ego, which John O’Donohue called ”the false self born out of fear and defensiveness.” 3 The problem with ego is that all too often we confuse it with our center. According to O’Donohue,

One of the greatest conflicts in life is the conflict between the ego and the soul. The ego is threatened, competitive, and stressed, whereas the soul is drawn more toward surprise, spontaneity, the new and the fresh. Real soul has humor, irony, and no obsessive self-seriousness. It avoids what is weary, worn, or repetitive. The image of the well breaking out of the hard, crusted ground is an illuminating image for the freshness that can suddenly dawn within the heart that remains open to experience.4

In today’s driven culture where there are few distinctions among the ego-issues that compel us, everything is urgent. In a state of habitual crisis, we seem to tell ourselves “If I don’t know what to do, I must do something.” Our commitment is more to action than to truth. We cannot trust ourselves not to act.

“The heart that remains open to experience” is the locus of the true self. It is the place of light, of grace. It cannot deceive or cajole, manipulate or manage. It is not about the self, but only about the other. When we have learned to surrender to that heart, which is the center of our stillness, we can trust ourselves in God. If we are “to escape the cage of the ego”5we must maintain our desire for the divine, or as the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, live always out of “our naked intent towards God.”6

That intent, that desire, is the source of holy waiting.


  1. Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land (New York: Oxford University Press 2006): 2. Kindle.
  2. Laird: 3.
  3. John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (London: Bantam 1997): 118.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Cloud of the Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, ed. William Johnston (New York: Doubleday Image Books 1973): 60. Kindle.

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Way of Waiting


Mary Ellen Dougherty
Mary Ellen Dougherty

Mary Ellen Dougherty SSND, is a School Sister of Notre Dame in the Atlantic–Midwest province. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her current ministry is writing.