It caught me by surprise as I walked to my car after picking up a prescription for my husband at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Because of Covid and the hospital still on operational alert status, I had to do a curbside pick-up. The tears welled up in my eyes and overflowed onto my cheeks thinking about the number of times I parked in the same patient discharge area over the past year and a half, each time waiting for my husband to be released after his cumulative 200+ days as an inpatient. I witnessed my husband’s courage and the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Fortitude, like never before. His willingness to undergo the bone marrow transplant and the associated risks to extend his life on this earth to be with those he loves is fortitude in action. But here we are now enjoying a quarantined life and I was so grateful I was not picking him up again after a discharge. He is our miracle man, a living testimony of God as healer and a vehicle for God to tell His story.
As I think about the next gift of the Holy Spirit we explore, there are many examples of this from the people in my life. At some point or another, we all encounter things in life that cause us to be afraid. Whether it is sudden unemployment, making a life-altering choice, a sudden illness, or the prospect of physical pain, fear is a fact of life in a fallen world. But how do we stare these difficulties in the face and not lose heart? By practicing the virtue of fortitude.
On this Father’s Day, I think about my own father and his fortitude. His father died when he was five years old, and my grandmother worked as a secretary to an oilman to provide for my father and his brother. My father worked hard, digging ditches, and playing football which earned him a scholarship to Notre Dame. He continued to work hard, overcoming life’s obstacles to obtain his dream of becoming an independent oilman and providing a good life to his family. He lived in physical pain from football injuries throughout his adult life, emotional pain from broken relationships and in the end, suffered from the effects of liver disease for several years before he died. Though not a religious man, he was always instilling in me the importance of Catholic values and the truth about God and his promises. He always demonstrated to me the virtue of fortitude.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition brings greater understanding: 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.Focus on His truth Psalm 118:14
In short, fortitude is the ability to choose what is right even when everything inside of us and outside of us is telling us to run away in fear. It is the ability to stand firm in pursuing good in the face of danger and potential suffering.
Fortitude flows naturally from faith, hope, and charity. When we believe the promises of God (faith) and have confidence not in ourselves but in the strength of Christ (hope), and we are motivated by love (charity), we will find ourselves filled naturally with the virtue of fortitude. Most of us in the West do not have to face any real danger on a daily basis but there are still ample opportunities for fortitude. Even crossing yourself and praying publicly requires a small amount of fortitude for most of us.
St. Thomas Aquinas says that fortitude, along with piety and fear of the Lord, direct the will toward God. Fortitude is both a gift of the Holy Spirit and a cardinal virtue. Fortitude gives us the strength to follow through on the actions we will learn about by the gift of counsel. While fortitude is sometimes called courage, it goes beyond what we normally think of as courage. Fortitude is the virtue of the martyrs that allows them to suffer death rather than to renounce the Christian Faith.
What are some of the benefits of learning, understanding, and living in the Gift of Fortitude and virtue of fortitude?
- Fortitude, one of the four cardinal virtues, can be practiced by anyone, since, unlike the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues are not, in themselves, the gifts of God through grace but the outgrowth of habit.
- Fortitude is commonly called courage, but it is different from what much of what we think of as courage today. Fortitude is always reasoned and reasonable; the person exercising fortitude is willing to put himself in danger, if necessary, but he does not seek danger for danger’s sake.
- Fortitude is the virtue that allows us to overcome fear and to remain steady in our will in the face of obstacles. Prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.
- Sometimes, however, the ultimate sacrifice is necessary, to stand up for what is right and to save our souls. Fortitude is the virtue of the martyrs, who are willing to give their lives rather than to renounce their faith. That sacrifice may be passive—Christian martyrs do not actively seek martyrdom—but it is nonetheless determined and resolute. It is in martyrdom that we see the best example of fortitude rising above a mere cardinal virtue (able to be practiced by anyone) into a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit. But it also shows itself, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “in moral courage against the evil spirit of the times, against improper fashions, against human respect, against the common tendency to seek at least the comfortable, if not the voluptuous.”
- Fortitude, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, also allows us to cope with poverty and loss, and to cultivate the Christian virtues that allow us to rise above the basic requirements of Christianity. The saints, in their love for God and their fellow man and their determination to do what is right, exhibit fortitude as a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit, and not merely as a cardinal virtue.
- Through fortitude, the Holy Spirit inspires and energizes a person to undertake great things joyfully and without fear despite obstacles.
- As with the other gifts, fortitude operates under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, so it perfects the virtue of fortitude, charging it with energy, endurance, perseverance, and promptness. It strengthens a person to resist evil, to overcome lukewarmness and persevere to everlasting life. Moreover, it brings a confidence of success and certain hope, despite the most difficult circumstances. For example, St. Maximilian Kolbe not only had great fortitude to offer his life promptly in exchange for another and to endure a horrible death, but also had the confidence of success that he would overcome the powers of evil and gain everlasting life. Saint Teresa of Kolkata generously spent her life and persevered in her work among “the poorest of the poor,” day in and day out, despite dangers, weariness, and overwhelming circumstances.
How do we cultivate the gift of fortitude that enables us to live the other virtues heroically?
- By recognizing our own weaknesses and limitations, begging for the gift of fortitude, and relying on the strength of Our Lord Jesus Himself.
- We need the strength and nourishment of the holy Eucharist. St. John Chrysostom said, upon receiving holy Communion, “Let us return from that table as lions breathing fire, terrible to the devil,” meaning to go forth not with fear, but with hearts afire with the love of the Lord Himself.
- By keeping to a spiritual regimen: taking time to pray throughout the day, including 15 minutes devoted to prayer and studying or doing spiritual reading for 15 minutes; making a confession monthly; attending Sunday Mass, and even daily Mass once a week; and making a regular, even daily, examination of conscience. Another part of this spiritual regimen would be to make a purposeful sacrifice daily (e.g. giving up a dessert or a drink or doing an act of charity), for a special intention, like the poor souls in purgatory or the Christians suffering persecution. If we can be faithful and do our duty in “little things,” more likely we will do the same in “big things.”
The Gift of Fortitude helps me choose to do what is right even when everything inside and outside of me is telling me to run away in fear. It is the ability to stand firm in pursuing good in the face of danger and potential suffering. Fortitude gives me strength in the midst of suffering, offering it up and using it for good rather than keep suffering by not accepting the situation. Far from being a martyr, fortitude gives me the courage to say no to my will and wants and trust in the story God wants to tell through my life.
Smitten with the Spirit’s Gift of Fortitude,