Fortitude denotes a certain firmness of mind, as stated above (Question , Article ; FS, Question , Article ): and this firmness of mind is required both in doing good and in enduring evil, especially with regard to goods or evils that are difficult. Now man, according to his proper and connatural mode, is able to have this firmness in both these respects, so as not to forsake the good on account of difficulties, whether in accomplishing an arduous work, or in enduring grievous evil. In this sense fortitude denotes a special or general virtue, as stated above (Question , Article ).
Yet furthermore man's mind is moved by the Holy Ghost, in order that he may attain the end of each work begun, and avoid whatever perils may threaten. This surpasses human nature: for sometimes it is not in a man's power to attain the end of his work, or to avoid evils or dangers, since these may happen to overwhelm him in death. But the Holy Ghost works this in man, by bringing him to everlasting life, which is the end of all good deeds, and the release from all perils. A certain confidence of this is infused into the mind by the Holy Ghost Who expels any fear of the contrary. It is in this sense that fortitude is reckoned a gift of the Holy Ghost. For it has been stated above (FS, Question , Articles ,2) that the gifts regard the motion of the mind by the Holy Ghost.
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II.139.1
Reflection – Our short tour through the gifts of the Holy Spirit on the way to Pentecost has taken us to the gift of fortitude today. In this case, Aquinas is actually fairly easy to understand, admittedly not the case with some of his other passages.
Fortitude is a pretty simple, obvious affair, at least on the level of the virtues. We all need it; it is one of the four cardinal virtues on which the whole moral life hinges. If we are not strong enough to endure some suffering in life or stay at a task that is difficult, we are really not good for much, I’m afraid.
This is true of just about anything we can think of that is more arduous than getting out of bed in the morning (although some mornings, fortitude may be needed for that, too). Any task, as soon as it extends into the long haul of life, is going to take strength to achieve, and and an ability to get through the difficult patches and setbacks.
So fortitude is a natural, normal virtue of humanity. What is the gift of fortitude, then? A virtue conforms our human powers to our rational will. The virtue fortitude strengthens us to achieve goals that are reasonable and realistic. When I sat down to write a book for the first time, I didn’t know I would be able to do it, but I thought it might be possible. Natural fortitude got me on the road and through the process, and has done so four times now.
But what about the unreasonable good? What about sticking with a task when there is no reasonable prospect of success? What about the task of becoming a saint? What about the task of perservering in faithfulness to the very end of life? What about the task of bearing witness to Christ in the face of hostility, violence, and perhaps even death? That’s where virtue doesn’t quite cut it.
Left on the level of virtue, human prudence would intervene here and counsel us to not set our sights so high, to not chase rainbows, to cut our losses and set ourselves a task that is within our strength. The gift of the Spirit of fortitude enables us to draw, not on our own strength, but on God’s strength. And so we have examples like Mother Teresa, John Paul II, Maximillian Kolbe, and… well I could start to list off the whole canon of saints here. People who loved and were faithful beyond human reason, beyond human strength, beyond mere human prudence. And this gift has been given us all in baptism, and is manifest in the life of any serious faithful Christian.
But remember—the point I’m trying to make with each of these gifts is that it’s not some ‘magical’ thing implanted in us, like a Harry Potter-type spell or charm. It’s a relationship with a real person, the Third Person of the Trinity, in which we call upon His help in our life to fulfill the divine destiny and communion for which we are made. We are strong, not because we have been bitten by a radioactive spiritual spider or something like that, but because He is with us and in us and is ready to strengthen us when we call upon Him for help. That is the secret of the saints and the martyrs, and they are eager to share that secret with us and teach us to live not within the boundaries of our own strength, but with strength given us each day and each moment by God.