I find fearless people intriguing. While the “adrenaline junkies” who will jump off or out of anything are interesting, I’m fascinated by the type of people who are fearless in the face of evil, adversity, or grave danger. Not the Marvel heroes or Jedis that entertain us, but the everyday folk who show courage in order to help others. That’s why I love talking about the saints in our Saints for Slackers podcast, because they were ordinary people that God used to do extraordinary things. And in order to do those amazing things, they needed courage.
Courage is also known as fortitude, one of the cardinal virtues. The root of the word virtue comes from the Latin virtus, meaning‘force.’ If earnestly practiced, virtue is the force that propels us along our journey to become like God, with His help. Cardinal comes from the Latin “hinge,” so this means that the cardinal virtues play a pivotal role in pursuing holiness. Our entire moral life hinges around four virtues that support its structure, which are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. We not only find these virtues cited in many passages throughout the Scriptures, but we see it embodied in Christ, His followers, and in the key players throughout salvation history.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines fortitude:
“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 Lord is my strength and my song.’ ‘In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’” (CCC 1808).
Once we understand courage though the lens of virtue, it is easy to see why it is considered one of the bedrock virtues of the Christian life. Christ told us that as disciples, it would not be easy—we must pick up our cross daily, follow Him, and stay on the narrow path. In order to remain firm and constant in pursuing our calling to be His disciples, which will include suffering and sacrifice, fortitude is indispensable.
I’ve shared quite a bit here of my journey here through trauma, grief from loss, and infertility. At times people have remarked, “You’re so strong.” I can honestly say, without trying to be falsely humble, that any strength others may see does not originate from within me. I often feel fear, doubt, worry, and struggle with anxiety. Any strength in me comes from faith—not in myself, but in God. It comes from knowing that despite how everything may appear, God sits on the Throne, and as a loving Father, He will take care of me and sort out all the chaos for my good.
Courageous people are not fearless. Rather, “quite the contrary, the fearless person can never be truly brave. This is because fear is based on love for something, and a desire not to lose it. But if a person does not love the thing he risks, does not value it, then where is the merit in risking it? A suicidal maniac, for example, is not brave because he risks his life for anything; he is stupid for not recognizing the value of his life, and for so casually placing his life in danger.” (Source: Catholic News Agency, “Fortitude”)
This distinction is important. If a person holds no regard for what they are risking, they are not brave; they are being impulsive or careless. But if a person loves that which they are risking, the fear of the loss of something/someone makes them brave—as their love motivates them beyond fear. Courage is a willingness to sacrifice, perhaps unto death like the martyrs, for something greater than our fear because we value it that much. The perfect embodiment of this is Jesus Christ, who courageously laid down His life because He loved and valued each one of us more than His fear of torture and crucifixion.
How Do We Grow in Courage?
While I think that some people are more timid, and others more naturally brave by design, we all have the capacity for growing in courage because it is rooted in the virtue of fortitude. Before we learn how to grow in them, we must first recognize that the cardinal virtues are not characteristics we can just work harder at to become more virtuous. To develop these theological virtues, it is critical first to acknowledge that they are not standards we can achieve through willpower.
“Christ’s gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues” (CCC 1811). These virtues are supernatural, or above our nature, so this is not a ladder to Heaven that we climb on our own merit.
We grow in the cardinal virtues through co-collaboration. God’s grace perfects our individual efforts. We give our “two loaves and five fish” so that God can refine and multiply it.
We must consent to respond to Christ’s grace and to continue our growth in virtue. Our fiat must be resolute in our tendencies toward doing good by grace so that we can share in the life of the Trinity and find joy. Virtues “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” (CCC 1804).
Given our sinful nature, maintaining moral uprightness is not easily achieved. All the graces necessary for us to press on in pursuing a virtuous life to share in His divine life flow from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Here are three ways to open yourself to more of God’s grace to grow in virtue, particularly in fortitude:
- Pray, asking God for the graces you need to grow in fortitude. Be ready to see what opportunities God provides for you to exercise courage.
- Frequent the Sacraments. Particularly Communion and confession, which give us the graces to do extraordinary things through Christ who strengthens us.
- Invite the Holy Spirit to work in and through you, and then follow His call. Asking the Holy Spirit is easy, it’s the following part that requires obedience and courage.
- Remain in the present, relying on God. God’s grace comes to us in the present. So, if you’re racing ahead (like me) to try and think, “What if this happens? How am I going to deal with that?” over every possible bad scenario, you’ll never be willing to even take the first step. Stay close to God and what He’s calling you to do today, where He’s giving you the grace to do what is necessary in the moment. When the next moments come, He’ll do the same thing. And before you know it, you’re progressing down the path, and doing things you may have never imagined!