Sonnet XIX


In high school, my best friend and I used to joke that we’d never pray for patience because the answer to the prayer would always be “Wait.” We truly loved Jesus, but ask God for patience? That seemed too much like tempting fate—specifically, inciting Satan to go to the throne and beg for Job-like opportunities to torture us. Why ask for trouble?

Later on, in graduate school, I took a class on John Milton. I read his magnum opus Paradise Lost and many other works, including poems like “Sonnet XIX.” That poem expresses Milton’s deepest sorrow over his blindness in midlife. It also reveals his existential crisis: How can he serve the Lord through writing, his one true talent, when he can’t even see?

Like Milton, I didn’t wonder why God would allow such suffering but, instead, how He was going to use me now. In Milton’s case, he could’ve lost any of his other senses and still had no problem writing. But no, in 17th-century England, he lost his sight.

I felt I’d lost all of myself.

In the poem, Milton turns from the problem—“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”—to insight because he is answered by patience personified. Get that: The answer to his prayer actually comes from the wise voice of patience.

And the message she delivers is this: They who “[b]ear his mild yoke … serve him best.” Then she concludes, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” True, but then Milton wrote Paradise Lost by dictating it to aides. (Crisis averted.)

Centuries later, I chant that sonnet’s ending line to myself often, like a continual benediction. They also serve who only stand and wait. Writing was the one part of me I still had amid my surgeries and divorce, so here I am. Yet there is still much to wait for. Patience, I now know, is not a passive activity but rather a way to worship. It’s not about jubilation but endurance. That’s hard work, but I beg for it.

Illustration by Makers Co.

Related Topics:  Patience

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