“No one wins a victory without fighting,
nor finds rest without working.”
— Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ III.19
The virtues that preserve our freedom as agents are twins: temperance and fortitude. By the former, we are unchained from cruel shackles; by the latter, we are armed for battle.
We have been born into a life of struggle and cannot find peace unless we first admit that we have been summoned to toil and to labor, to fight and to protect. Long before the earth took shape from the remains of exploded stars, the Evil One set himself up against God and was thrown down from heaven with multitudes of rebel angels. When Adam later fell, bitten as Eve had been by the desire to rule himself without regard to God’s law, the earth fell with him, and so, beautiful and orderly though it is, it bears its roses among thorns and offers us sustenance grudgingly. Our pursuit of the good, then, takes place in a context well beyond our choosing or our likes and dislikes. We must strive to preserve life and to pursue holiness in the face of countless and daunting obstacles, both material and spiritual.
“Fear is nothing but surrender of the helps that come from reason” (Wisd. 17:12).
Fear is a terrible passion. Desire always has in it some promise of pleasure; it beckons, entices, beguiles. Fear appalls, unsettles, and puts us in a state of confusion. Great fears repel us. Without tremendous force of character, we simply run from them. Lesser fears shake us. If our firmness does not suffice, we lash out at them, often bringing more injury upon ourselves and others by our irrational self-defense than we would have suffered had we simply endured the pain, discomfort, inconvenience, or insult. Fortitude is reason’s armor and the bulwark of interior peace. If our souls are steadfast, the many fears that must and will assault us every day will not conquer us but will stir us to effective service.
When Aristotle examined the virtue of fortitude, he took special pains to warn his students against dispositions that may look courageous but are not so in truth. One of these is the tendency to act impulsively that we see in the young or high-spirited person. Another is the willingness to fight or to labor under compulsion, as with the mercenary or the slave. By these facsimiles and substitutes for courage, we begin to appreciate the authentic virtue. Our fortitude must be interior, free, and rational. It is a firm disposition to overcome our fears for the sake of a noble end, for the sake of the goods that constitute the communities of which we are the parts, for the good of the family, the neighborhood, the parish, the business, the city. If fortitude is to be a virtue, it must be the result of our choices, our actions.
Yet if we are not ourselves soldiers, how shall we be trained in this virtue?
In the first place, it is by the consistent performance of our daily duties. Our Savior, the carpenter’s son, taught us by his example not to disdain ordinary work, and the witness of the first Christians is unequivocally the same. Whether it is St. Paul stitching tents, St. Timothy attending to the reading and prayers, or Priscilla and Aquila, by their hospitality, making it possible for the Gospel to be shared, the early followers of Christ took up the task at hand forthrightly and with generous hearts. Scripture casts the exhortation to labor courageously in simple terms: “In all your work be industrious, and no sickness will overtake you” (Sir. 31:22). It is true that work is for the sake of leisure, and the highest use of leisure is contemplation and worship. We must indeed keep the right order of goods always in mind. Yet in doing so we must not forget that there are many people to whom we owe our productive work — of whatever kind it may be –and that if we embrace this work as service, it will strengthen our hearts.
The other universal path to fortitude is the daily exercise of ruling our own emotions and keeping them reined in by reason and grace. This life of self-command is no trivial task. What foes are more bitter, more constant, and more difficult to vanquish than our fears and the irrational anger that can well up from our daily converse with others? “He who is slow to anger,” said Solomon, “is better than the mighty” (Prov. 16:32). How very true, yet how difficult to attain the serenity that comes from fortitude. How are we to do it? By taking little steps of patience, perseverance, and constancy.
We can find valuable advice about how to live these aspects of fortitude in the letters of St. Francis de Sales. He wrote thousands of letters during his two decades as bishop of Geneva, some to religious sisters such as St. Jane de Chantal, others to priests and to men and women in the world. No matter his correspondent, he always spoke in the same voice: direct, unpretentious, and above all, warm. Again and again he counseled his friends to find their joy in spiritual things, to look to the saints for inspiration, to strive to maintain a loving attentiveness to God, and to keep in their minds concrete images of the Lord: Jesus kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus displaying his wounds, Jesus stretching out a helping hand, and, above all, Jesus hanging on the Cross. Throughout these letters, the virtues he most frequently turned to are perseverance, constancy, and patience. All three are dispositions to carry burdens well. Perseverance and constancy regard lengthy works, with perseverance being the disposition to endure the pain of the work itself, and constancy the determination to stick to the task in the face of temptations to abandon it in favor of other, more attractive ends. Patience is a more general virtue of suffering well, but it does have as its special task the bearing of pains caused by other persons. Patience, in particular, is a foundation for the life of virtue and devotion because it is a firm strength of mind in the face of annoyance and suffering. As St. Thomas Aquinas explained, patience “removes by the root the passions that are evoked by hardships and disturb the soul.”
As he taught his correspondents how to live these virtues, de Sales was always practical and encouraging. To a correspondent frustrated because her daily duties kept interrupting her intended scheme of devotions, de Sales wrote with gentle but firm words that adjusted her perspective: “God wants you to serve him as you are, and by the exercises and virtuous deeds that accord with your state in life. And in addition to persuading yourself of this truth, you must also make yourself to love your state in life and its duties, and to love them tenderly, for the sake of the One who has willed it thus.” To other friends, he sent similar counsel. Constancy requires “that our hearts [be] where our treasure is and that we should live in heaven.” And while on this pilgrim journey, we must “walk firmly in the way in which the providence of God has placed [us], without looking either to the right or to the left.” To walk in friendship with God is not the work of a day, but of a lifetime, which is why we must “begin again every day,” remembering that “there is no better path to success in the spiritual life than always to begin again and never to think that you have done enough.” The great obstacle in this attempt is, of course, our own weakness. Yet perseverance itself requires that we have a certain disregard for our shortcomings and maintain our confidence in the Lord: “God will hold you in his hand,” the saint wrote, “and if he lets you stumble, it will be only so that you realize that you would collapse entirely if he did not hold you, and thus to make you tighten your grip upon his hand.”
The appeal to the imagination was characteristic of de Sales’s spirituality, and when attempting to shore up the patience of his friends, he typically asked them to bring to mind some moment in the life of Jesus. To a friend suffering from fear, he wrote: “Be firm in your resolutions. Stay in the boat. Let the storm come. While Jesus lives, you will not die.” To one suffering from depression, he employed stronger medicine: “Continue to embrace our crucified Lord, and give him your heart and consecrate your mind to him with your affections just as they are.” And to one who had complained of bitter suffering, he used the very strongest: “Every day you should bring to mind the sufferings our Lord endured for our redemption . . . and consider how good it is for you to participate in them.” The image of the crucified Savior is the right medicine for our souls: “The whole life of Christ was a Cross and martyrdom, yet you seek rest and joy?” We may be tempted to soothe psychological pain with the false relief of digital distraction, but this is cowardice, not courage, and cannot possibly heal us. When self-pity or stress, suffering, or boredom knocks at the door, we must turn to the Cross and look upon the Lord. He can cast away the darkness of our sorrows and fears and renew our minds for the labors of the Christian life.
Soldiers of Christ
2 Timothy 2:1–7
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,
and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust
to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Take your
share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on
service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy
the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless
he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer
who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what
I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.
Questions for Reflection
– Do I keep in mind the duties of my state in life, so that I
may recognize the obstacles and suffering that confront me
as opportunities to serve God’s kingdom?
– Is there sufficient order in my daily life — my waking, sleeping,
exercise, and fruitful use of time — so that I am ready
to labor cheerfully and effectively in the service of others?
– Am I allowing myself to be susceptible to anxiety, fear, and
irrational anger by failing to think about God’s goodness and
his providential care for me?
Art for this post on steadfastness: Cover used with permission; Featured image used with permission of Pixabay.
How to do we remain steadfast and optimistic during times of immense anxiety. Click HERE.