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The Patience of a Cactus
December 2, 2001

Cactus line the road near Zababdeh
A cactus seemed like an appropriate gift for Father Ra'ed.  After all, he had helped us through the thorny underbrush of Israeli bureaucracy for over a week.  We had come simply to renew our visas to stay another year, but soon we were tied up in red tape and at our wits' end. But eventually, with his help, the mighty bureaucratic beast was slain (non-violently, of course), and we skipped out of the cavernous ministry building, waving high our validated passports.

In Arabic, "cactus" comes from the same root as "patience": sabra (a feature also shared by the ill-fated refugee camp in Lebanon). You see them everywhere here, lining roads and separating property boundaries, even outlasting the destroyed or abandoned villages they once demarcated.  Our week of misstepping, stonewalling, and triplicating had required great patience, patience summed up by a personified succulent.

The sabra is well-suited to the rhythms of creation. The long, hot summer means no rain - not even clouds - but the cactus has stored up the last winter's downpours in its tissue, protected from evaporation by its waxy coating and from snacking by its plentiful thorns.  The end of drought, brought by the rains that now pour from the sky, is a long-awaited blessing, and the sabra's roots rapidly absorb life-giving water.

Unlike the cactus, many of us from the first world have lost touch with the rhythms of creation. In a culture of instant gratification, we are not accustomed to waiting. We can enjoy strawberries in the fall and apples in the spring. Food and water, even electricity, air-conditioning, and heating are available around the clock, around the year. In such a culture, we run the risk of distancing ourselves from the lessons of the cactus. If we do not persevere through the drought, we run the risk of forgetting how blessed the rain is. We may even be lured into thinking that we can generate our own blessings - that we can make our own rain. And further, if we do not prepare ourselves, fatten up our spiritual resources, we may not be able to survive the drought, those times when we may ask, "Where is God?"  Indeed, the cactus is an appropriate metaphor for the patience and inner-strength essential in this place at this time when the cooling rains of peace, justice, and mercy seem so distant.  Filled with the knowledge of the grace of God, we wait for the end of many things - terror, occupation, apartheid - and for the beginning of others - co-existence, peace, hope.

As we write, we are in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and contemplation. Our Muslim colleagues and our older students refrain from food and drink twelve hours a day. Families gather together to break their fasts, celebrating together God's blessings, and sharing special Ramadan treats. The Christian season of Advent, which begins this Sunday, is traditionally a season of fasting and spiritual preparation (there is perhaps no better example of our culture's distaste for waiting than the fact that Christmas that starts on the heels of Halloween with shopping sprees and omnipresent mall-Santas). To fast, to go without, reminds us of our many blessings, and that we rely on God, and not ourselves, for them. It reminds us that we are sustained not by bread alone, but by the Word of God. It checks our pride and arrogance. It reminds us of the suffering of the hungry of the world, who fast for lack of food. To thirst - to really thirst - leads us to the gift of rain, to eagerly absorb and cherish every last drop of God's bountiful blessings and life-giving grace.

We invite you, our cyber-community of faith, support, and challenge, to join us in this season of reflection and patience, of waiting and preparation. We invite you to consider a fast (be it a strict abstinence from meals or a selective foregoing of a favored treat) to enrich and strengthen your spiritual resources.  May our thirst be rewarded.  May our patience be tried.  And may we, together, be blessed in a deluge.

In Patience,
Elizabeth and Marthame