Get Ready, Get Set….

Pheidippides Engraving

Pheidippides finishes the run from Marathon to Athens, anonymous engraving 19th century.

Or How to Grow in the Virtue of Fortitude

Have you ever had the feeling at the outset of Lent that you’ll be hard pressed to make it to the end of the forty days while remaining faithful to your Lenten commitments? Judging by my own trepidations, I suspect that it’s not uncommon.  The problem for us is that, if we struggle with following through on our resolutions for a mere forty days, what does that say about our ability to persevere in virtue through the remainder of our lives?  This should be of utmost concern to us considering the consequences.

With this in mind, it seems appropriate to ponder the cardinal virtue of fortitude. In doing so recently, St. Paul’s wise words from his Second Letter to Timothy came to my mind:

As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.  (2 Timothy 4:5-8)

In this epistle, we hear a perfect description of the cardinal virtue of fortitude:

“As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

And:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

That is fortitude. But why is St. Paul’s nearly two-thousand year old description of fortitude important to us today?  Happiness.  Simply, happiness.

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us in his Summa:  “Happiness is the reward of virtue.” [First Part of the Second Part, Question 4, Article 6 (www.newadvent.org)]

“Happiness is the reward of virtue.” We all desire true and lasting happiness.  So, naturally, we should all want to cultivate what will make us happy.  That is, we should all want to cultivate virtue.

But, what is virtue? The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1804 defines virtue thus:

“Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life.”

To distill this, a virtue is firm, stable, and habitual. It governs, orders, and guides us.  It results in a morally good life.  That morally good life leads to happiness.  And not just happiness here on Earth, but eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

But “…always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” How can that possibly lead to happiness?  What does fortitude have to do with happiness?  Are we not happier if we do not suffer, if we avoid work and responsibility?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1808 says:

“Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life.  The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions.  It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines fortitude simply as “courage in pain or adversity.” Its Latin root is fortis which means “strong.”

From a purely therapeutic or “self help” perspective, it is easy pick out how fortitude might reduce one’s stress and thereby increase one’s happiness in a particular moment. Or, perhaps, cultivating fortitude might reduce one’s anxieties so much that one would live many years unshaken by the turbulence common to any ordinary life.  But, we Christians should be focused on eternal and perfect happiness which can only be found in the one eternal and perfect God.  For this, Jesus makes it abundantly clear:

“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven….”  (Matthew 5:11-12)

And:

“He who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

Jesus Christ Himself makes it abundantly clear this virtue of fortitude will, by the grace of God, bring us to eternal happiness in Heaven.

So, what concrete steps can we make here and now? Remember that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that virtues are habitual.

For this, we would do well to contemplate the advice of St. John Vianney, the venerable Curé of Ars, who offers four habits that will help one grow in fortitude: 1) obedience; 2) avoidance of bad company; 3) prayer; and 4) frequent reception of the Sacraments.  [Sermon for the Second Sunday after Easter, from Sermons for the Sundays and Feasts of the Year by the Venerable Curé of Ars, published by Joseph F. Wagner, New York, New York, 1901]

The Curé of Ars suggests first that, by exercising prompt obedience in little things, we will grow to obey the natural inclinations toward God’s grace which, of course, will give us an increased strength to persevere. So, next time you feel even the slightest inclination to meekly endure a mild injustice, to pray, or to attend a weekday Mass, act on it right away.  You will grow in fortitude (not to mention any other graces associated with the action).

Second, he suggests that we gain fortitude as we grow stronger in our life of grace by avoiding near occasions of sin – by preferring to associate with others who share in our pursuit of the virtues rather than with those who don’t care or perhaps even disdain virtue. So, we should objectively evaluate our friendships.  Are your friends helping you grow in virtue or are they hindering?  Choose good friends, and you will grow in fortitude.

St. John Vianney suggests that prayer is “indispensable” to grow in fortitude. Recall what Jesus says in John 15:5:  “apart from me you can do nothing.”  For us to endure with fortitude, we must have Divine assistance which Jesus happily provides if we but ask.  In particular, the habitual prayer recommended by the Curé is a combination of remorse and hope.  To quote:

“Remorse at the sight of our unworthiness, and the dishonor which we have offered to God and His graces…. Hope in the greatness of God’s mercy, in His desire of making us happy….  Penetrated with feelings of the most fervent gratitude [from this prayer, we] form the firm resolution never again to offend this God who comes to meet [us] with His graces….  This is the prayer which is so necessary to obtain … the precious gift of perseverance.”

He suggests that the fourth, and most important, means to grow in fortitude is the frequent reception of the Sacraments.  As the Sacraments preserve sanctifying grace in our souls, they provide us the “necessary strength to resist the devil, and not be overpowered by him.” That is fortitude.  St. John Vianney provides us a sobering thought on the Sacraments:

“There has never been a saint who kept away from the Sacraments and still preserved the friendship of God.”

We should be clear. With the Sacraments, it’s not just quantity, but quality as well.  If we do not receive the Sacraments with the proper disposition, we do not receive nearly the grace as when we receive with the proper disposition.  So, we should examine our disposition.  When you attend Holy Mass, are you paying attention, are you prayerfully entering into communion with God?  When you go to Confession, are you truly contrite, are you sincerely making a firm resolution to avoid the near occasion of sin?  If one does these things, one will grow in grace, and increased fortitude will follow.

Repeating: 1) obedience; 2) avoidance of bad company; 3) prayer; and 4) frequent reception of the Sacraments.

To these, I would suggest we add a fifth: study the lives of the saints.  While all of the saints possessed many virtues, by definition, the single common trait of all the saints is that they each had great fortitude to persevere to the end.  Recall what Jesus said:  “He who endures to the end will be saved.”  (Matthew 10:22)  That is what it means to be a saint.  Just one example I have recently read and come to admire is that of St. Paul Miki, a Japanese Jesuit Brother who, along with other Jesuit companions, was crucified for the faith in 1597.  While on the cross, St. Paul Miki preached thus to the people:

“The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ…. I thank God it is for this reason I die….  After Christ’s example I forgive my persecutors.  I do not hate them.  I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain.”

That is a heroic example of fortitude that should inspire each of us in our personal journeys to sanctity! What better way than to model our lives after the saints?

St. Paul the Apostle exhorts us to fortitude, and Jesus tells us “He who endures to the end will be saved.” I hope you will join me in reflecting on it daily this Lent.  Let us work on obedience, evaluate our friendships, pray more, avail ourselves of the sacraments, and read the lives of the saints.  Let us pray for the virtue of fortitude to endure to the end, and be saved for all eternity.

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