In this week before Pentecost, we are going through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so as to stir up our desire for God and our openness to all He wants to do in our lives. The gifts of the Spirit are, essentially, given to us by God in baptism so that we are enabled to live the divine life in our human flesh.
The second gift is that of fortitude. This can be understood as strength or courage. It is a simple fact, isn’t it, that we have to be strong and brave in this life? Even if our own lot in life is not filled with terrible dangers and travails, there is no one whose life is so charmed that they do not need fortitude. Particularly if you set yourself to live a good life, to do what is right and just, to be a lover of God and of man, you need strength. The good path is rarely the easier path.
And there is a natural virtue of fortitude which is available to anyone, part of our God-created, God-imaged humanity. And we need that natural fortitude to do just about anything that takes a bit of effort, anything that comes with a cost. A weak-willed person who has no fighting spirit whatsoever is not going to be able to do much of anything at all—sooner or later there are obstacles to overcome, difficulties to surmount.
The gift of fortitude is quite different from the virtue, though. Natural fortitude strengthens us in the battle to achieve the reasonable good. The good we can see is possible, that while it may be far off and fraught with difficulties we nonetheless know is attainable. I suppose one of the most obvious examples of that reasonable good is the enormous effort and work that goes into raising a family. It is very hard, and demands everything from the man and woman who essay it, but it is nonetheless a reasonable thing to do—if you simply keep going day by day providing, protecting, and teaching the children God gave you, you have a reasonable expectation of producing a bunch of more or less functional adults. But it certainly takes fortitude to persevere in that work.
The gift of the Spirit of fortitude picks up, however, where natural fortitude leaves off. That is, it strengthens us for the unreasonable good. When there is no good outcome in view, when life stretches ahead of us as a bleak vista of endless grey days and arid landscapes without relief, when death itself is looming, when our plans and hopes all seem to have failed, and we are left simply with our commitment to whatever vows and promises we have made to God and man, which no longer seem to hold any joy or life for us, only bare fidelity—that is when we need the gift of courage.
This gift, then, shows itself most beautifully in the witness of the martyrs. When there is literally a knife at your throat and all you need to do is deny Christ to keep your head attached to your shoulders, and you instead cry out the name of Jesus, and die—this is fortitude in its most supernatural expression, its most beautiful and radiant effulgence.
Well, we know this is not some distant historical reality in our world today—it is happening now. Martyrdom is part of the Christian experience of the 21st century, wondrously. While the evil being done to our brothers and sisters in so many countries of the world is terrible, and we should grieve for the evil doers, at the same time we really do need to recapture the joy and glory of martyrdom that was the hallmark of the early Church.
Our brothers and sisters killed for Christ are flying up to heaven, you know. And it has always been the case that the blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of faith—their deaths are the most powerful weapon there is precisely against the hatred and zealotry that killed them.
It is spiritual fortitude that makes all this possible. And makes it possible for all of us to persevere in less dramatic and violent circumstances as well. To stay in a marriage when it has become very difficult, or the priesthood or in religious life when the joy of it has fled or become elusive. To forgive enemies when there seems little profit in it for us. To go on loving in situations where it is not reciprocated and seems to do little good.
Whenever we are called to fidelity beyond rational calculation or reasonable expectation, that is when the Spirit must come to our aid with the gift of courage, of strength, of fortitude. And that fortitude comes from that which the Spirit gives us in essence—the knowledge of God, of His love, His fidelity, His own total gift of Himself, out of which we can and indeed are mysteriously impelled to give our whole selves to Him by living and if need be dying for His sake.
We can’t go looking for martyrdom, nor do most of us want to. But today we can go looking for where our fidelity to God pushes us beyond what is reasonable, what is ‘fair’, what makes sense to us. And, in the current parlance, ‘leaning in’ to that and so tapping into this infinite reservoir of strength that is not ours, but His, and rejoicing in it.