Spirit Quest on Waiting

Spirit Quest

On Waiting

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

“Life is on a wire. Everything else is waiting.” Nik Wallenda, the dare devil tight rope walker who had crossed the Niagara gorge on a wire, quoted his grandfather, Karl, who had been less lucky than he. Karl died in a fall in Puerto Rico in 1978 at age 73. On Sunday evening, November 2, Nik proceeded out on a wire stretched high over the Chicago River between three skyscrapers, this time without any safety harness or net. The broadcasters of the event had instituted a 10 second time delay to spare viewers from having to witness a tragic end to the space walk.

“Everything else is waiting,” so repeated Nik. Waiting is not always a pleasant experience but it is one that each of us have been subject to in our lifetime.

I have a recent experience of such waiting. I had been slated for surgery. Adorned in a less than fetching hospital gown, pale blue, I reclined on a gurney waiting for my summons to the operating room. I expected a delay. I waited for some five hours only to be told that due to a glitch at the OR my surgery would have to be rescheduled.  Part of me was elated but there was also disappointment. I had hoped to be over the ordeal as soon as possible.

I had not fortified myself with reading material or even pen and paper that I might write another blog while waiting. However, I am gifted, or cursed, with a rife imagination and a vivid memory. Whenever I am subjected to waiting one of the events I often recall is the most intensive wait I have ever experienced. It was on November 3, 1938 when I was nine years of age.

Mother and I had gotten caught in the Sudetenland, the German speaking part of Czechoslovakia, which had been ceded to Germany by the infamous Munich Agreement of September 1938. We were now attempting to rejoin my father in Prague where we were to depart for Britain and safety. But a well guarded boundary separated us.

Mother and I took the train to the nearest border town. We had no travel documents. Any efforts to secure them would have exposed us as seeking to flee. Mother sat me down in the station waiting room. She warned me not to speak to anyone while she went off to another city across the Elbe River.      

“I don’t know how long I shall be but I SHALL BE BACK.” she told me with a quiet authority in her voice. With that she left while I cooled my heels for at least three hours though at the time it seemed much longer. Finally she reappeared with travel documents in hand — a 24 hour pass to go to retrieve our bedding in Prague, supposedly. The documents had been obtained surreptitiously through the intervention of Nazi relatives for whom blood was more important than ideology. You may read more about this in the chapter  “Refugees”  in my book Uprooted and Transplanted. The book also contains a reprint of the travel document which I very much treasure.

During this lengthy time of waiting I was sustained by her promise that she would be back. I have no recollection of what occupied my mind until she finally reappeared. She hailed a cab and we managed to cross the border and to escape Hitler’s police. The incident often comes to mind when I am forced to wait as I did a few days ago.

Waiting is not always a tense and unpleasant experience. I think of Wordsworth’s poem.  

“Oft when on my couch I lie,” not a hospital gurney,
“in vacant or in pensive mood,” daydreaming perhaps,
“they,” the daffodils, “flash upon that inward eye,” optics of the mind,
“which is the bliss of solitude.”  how blessed indeed!

Being alone without organized thoughts allows us to flash back and bask in memories of happy times, places we have visited and friends in whose company we have enjoyed them.

The late Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest living in Canada, who was very much involved in the establishment of Day Break, a home for physically and mentally handicapped people, was a deeply spiritual person. He wrote a book called The Spirituality of Waiting in which he encourages us to make life a time of active ‘waitfulness.‘ He advises his readers to live and to wait expectantly as I did at that railway station.

Waiting is not to be a time of emptiness, a waste of time as some suggest, but a time of listening patiently, attending to the movement of the spirit.

Many have given up on the church and religion. They nevertheless avow that they are spiritual. They confess that they believe that there is something powerful deep within their psyches. Many books have been published on the subject. People attend seminars and study groups that teach spiritual exercises to help them enhance their consciousness of the spirit within. I suppose one might call this the practice of creative waiting.

Few of us live like Nik Wallenda and his family, “on a wire.” Most of us prefer to wait and enjoy the rich memories of the past and to contemplate a better world than the one that we presently behold. Subsequently some are involved in building it, often at great risk. Others condemn waiting as wasteful and wishful thinking but it is doubtless better than despair. It may even encourage us to go out on a wire, to live daringly and creatively for peace, justice and the integrity of creation. Nelson Mandela’s long incarceration was not in vain. He waited creatively and upon release was prepared to work for the liberation of his people.

Nouwen dreamed that the many unfortunate people with a variety of disabilities need to be cared for and lovingly sheltered, not locked away from public gaze. However, these very people have something to impart to us.

The planners of a large church gathering invited Nouwen as their keynote speaker. He agreed on one condition that he be allowed to bring with him some of “his friends” from Day Break. With them he presented a kind of a drama that awoke in all of us a new sense of the meaning of life.

Rollo May, the well known New York psychoanalyst wrote about Being rather than Becoming. It is to live in the now and to listen for the voice and the movement of the spirit that is not “out there”  but “deep within.” It may be a crying out for hope and meaning but it needs to be given time to mature.

In Psalm 130 of the Jewish-Christian scriptures we read, “I waited patiently for the Lord and he listened to me and heard my cry.” It is a theme common to all faiths. Therefore wait patiently even courageously.

Spirit Quest