The Fifth Gift: Courage
Courage comes from the Latin word for heart cor and the French coeur. To have the heart for something means to be able to face something difficult or frightening and to persevere. Courage therefore does not mean not being afraid. It means to be afraid and go ahead and do the right thing anyway. Plato, Aristotle and Cicero wrote about this virtue as well as others, just as the authors of the Bible did. They and later philosophers and theologians recognized the importance of courage for the moral life. Courage is considered the most important of the virtues by many because without it the others cannot be practiced consistently.
There is an interesting and important distinction between the non-Christian and the Christian traditions in the understanding of courage. The Greeks, Romans, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists and others did not/do not believe in grace. They feel that if someone does not have courage, he or she has not been trained properly, has a psychological problem, has a physical illness or is being compromised or harassed by evil spirits. All or one of these may be true, but at base, Christianity teaches that true courage or heroism, which is not self-seeking, is a gift which builds on the other natural human efforts. Christianity often quotes St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous teaching that “Grace builds on nature.”
In considering courage, the teachings of Aristotle make sense as a foundation. Courage can be taught to a great extent and moderation is important in exercising it. A person does not have to take risks all the time or confront every fearful thing in order to be morally strong. On the other hand, it is good to try new things, to face one’s fears and develop parts of the personality that are underdeveloped. If I want to be able to dance I can take dancing lessons. If I would like to be able to do public presentations I can get some personal coaching and feel more comfortable. From the faith perspective, even these decisions are based on the work of the Spirit. It is the life of the Spirit, the Paraclete, in the world which calls us and empowers us.
At times I may find truly upsetting or frightening situations in my path. I may face an illness, the addictions of a child, or the possible loss of my job. Being at peace or thinking clearly may be beyond me. I can internalize this crisis and work on it by myself or I can consciously offer it to God and ask for help. I can practice consciously giving it to God over and over and ask for light on it.
I can also use Discernment to identify if any motions are going on inside me that lead to distress. These powerful negative thoughts can come from my own psychology but often they come from the Enemy (St. Ignatius of Loyola’s, term for the Devil) who loves to undermine us by introducing negative interpretations and scenarios. St. Paul confronts these deceptions by reminding us that if at all possible we have to counter anything that does not bring peace. I might be feeling fairly stable even in the middle of a crisis and all of a sudden a thought comes that is very scary. The thought says: “This might happen. That might happen.” Someone who is seasoned in courage will immediately sweep away speculative frightened thinking. The only thing that matters in a frightening life or event is the question addressed to God: “What should I be doing right now?” Cultivating a prayer life all the time goes a long way later on when I need to center myself and ask God for courage.
Courage is a grace. We get the grace when we need it. The saints who have done heroic things or died as martyrs were given the grace for that at the time.
Courage also may be needed for non-crisis situations. It may be needed for a long term commitment to something difficult. Parents who find that they have given birth to a sick baby may need a lot of courage to live day-to-day with this struggling child. Courage can be called fortitude or perseverance in this case. Caregivers who take care of a spouse with Alzheimers or any severe condition also have need of great courage in order to live out the other gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom. In both cases,watching another suffer without becoming cynical requires the gift of courage.
It is sometimes startling how far life can challenge and stretch us. The tragedies, injustice, and atrocities can almost strip us clean of hope and energy. Christ had the courage to take the side of goodness and it cost him his life. We can be called to extend ourselves and donate ourselves for the good of another. Wisdom and Right Judgement can take us to the point of choice but the Gift of Courage will have to take us across the line.
For an excellent movie on courage rent Of Gods and Men about 7 Cistercian monks in Algeria — good casting — fantastic music.