At some point in life - usually when they are young- most people acquire hopes and dreams. For the Catholic, the greatest dream ought be that of achieving personal holiness by loving our Lord entirely and bringing the love of him to others. Our Lord can enter one’s life either suddenly or gradually. But whatever the way Our Lord enters our life, he extends an invitation to follow him generously. Hearing the call, the response ought be generous and high-minded. From then on that same call has to be heard again and again, each day, and the desire to respond to the call ought be growing.
But if anything is to be achieved, we must confront our weakness. We easily drop the bundle when doing God’s will gets difficult, when it gets monotonous and dreary, when there are failures. Our Lord said that the children of this world are all too often wiser than are the children of the light. We see about us many examples of people who achieve success in the things of this world, and one important reason for this is that in the face of difficulties they do not give up on their chosen goal. They are strong in the face of obstacles. We see this in politics, we see it in sports, in business, in research work, in whatever - it is obvious that if a person does not have the fortitude or strength to persevere in the midst of difficulties then his goals cannot be attained.
So too in the spiritual life. The goal we have before us is the goal that God has had for us, namely to live in Christ and to be full of love in his sight. This is God’s goal for us, and the Christian makes God’s goal his own. But then we must have the fortitude to seek that goal in the face of the inevitable difficulties. Fortitude is the strength to persevere in difficulty. It comes both from nature, and it comes also from grace. As a grace it is a share in our Lord’s own fortitude making us more like him. Fortitude is essential to reach our goal.
Scripture is full of examples of fortitude. We remember how God tested Abraham. After promising that through his offspring all the nations would be blessed, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only child, Isaac. It must have been traumatic for Abraham, but he had the fortitude to go through with God’s command. At the last minute God prevented him from slaying his son on the altar of sacrifice. There is a famous passage in the book of Genesis in which Jacob, the son of Isaac, struggles in some way with God and prevails. Scripture gives him the name of being strong with God - it seems he was strong with God in persevering in his demand for some request, a blessing. He had fortitude. Many other examples could be given from Scripture.
But our greatest example is that of our Lord himself. He is the example of strength and perseverence in the face of difficulty in attaining the highest goal possible in the history of man. That goal was the salvation of mankind at unimaginable cost to himself. He bore on his shoulders the sins of all mankind and expiated for them all. Our Lord persevered to the end. He was far stronger in spirit than any other human being in history, and this was demonstrated in the midst of difficulty. And in giving to the Church her mission our Lord spoke of persevering to the end. He said, “You will be hated by all men on account of my name; but the man who stands firm to the end will be saved.” By our baptism we are united by God to the person of Jesus, and by his grace we are able to make his virtues our own. This means that through our own perseverence and the grace of God we can gradually live with his fortitude and perseverance. In this way it is Christ who is living in us, and this is what we need for holiness.<> St Thomas Aquinas was once asked by his sister what is necessary to be a saint. He is reported to have told her that what is necessary is that a person really want it. The test of a person wanting something is his determination in the face of difficulty. Consider the great mission our Lord gave his apostles. Let us put ourselves in their position. We regard ourselves as ordinary persons. So were they. They were fishermen, one was a tax collector. Yet our Lord told them just before he ascended into heaven that he was sending them out to the whole world to make disciples of all the nations. And that’s what they set out to do, whatever the difficulties. Imagine if we were asked to do this by our Lord. Then our Lord ascended into heaven and he was gone from their sight. Soon they received the Holy Spirit who infused them with his zeal and strength. We have received the same Holy Spirit. We share in this same mission, the mission to invite others to be Christ’s friends and to give themselves wholeheartedly to the requirements of this friendship with Christ. The overwhelming percentage of people are not interested even though they are created for it. We need fortitude for such a mission. We could liken fortitude to the spurs we use in riding a horse. The horse has to get up the hill, a long and steep hill at that, and as quickly as possible. We use the spurs to keep the horse going. Otherwise the horse stops. Fortitude is the spur. >
What are the obstacles for which fortitude is needed? Well, they are what the Church calls the world, the flesh and the devil. We could say that the world sums up all the obstacles coming from the world of other people and other things - the bad example, the ridicule, the criticisms, the temptations all around us of various kinds, the false values and assumptions. For instance, it is commonly assumed in our Australian culture that religion is a purely private matter, and therefore is just a subjective opinion and that ultimately objective truth is not involved in it. This can gradually affect our attitude to Catholic truth. It does affect the attitude of many others - they unconsciously think that we cannot be really certain about any truth, including the truth of what the Church teaches. After all - so they think - so many others think their religion is true, so how can we really think that ours is? And many other influences bear down upon us from the world, constituting obstacles to us in our quest for holiness and bringing Christ to others. We must recognise these obstacles coming from the world and have the fortitude to overcome them.
There are also the obstacles coming from within us, from what the Church calls the flesh, that is, from our inner weaknesses stemming from the original sin we have inherited, our pride, lust, anger and so forth. All these are obstacles to our quest for holiness and they have to be overcome. To keep at the work of fighting these inner defects and temptations requires great fortitude. It is a life-long battle, a battle for every day and we must struggle with vigilance.
Then there is the devil himself. He and his dark spirits are forever trying to win us away from God and their principal instruments are the temptations coming from the world and the flesh. He is busy making use of these sources of influence and hiding their darkness behind rays of light. The devil is a master of disguise. He does not show himself as he really is. St Martin of Tours was a great bishop of the early Church in France. On one occasion when Martin was deep in prayer he had a vision of a beautiful man radiant in glory. This figure before him told Martin that he was Christ the Lord and invited Martin to worship him. Martin hesitated. Then he said to the one who had appeared: “Show yourself to me as crucified.” The figure immediately vanished and left the whole room full of a terrible smell. The devil is a master of disguise and he is a real force trying to prevent us from persevering in our quest for apostolic holiness. He tries to entice us to give in to our inner temptations and to the temptations coming from the world. He wants us to be weak. We must be resolute, persevering, strong. We must develop true fortitude.
How do we do this? It is love and piety which will will overcome the fear of difficulty. We have heard of a parent arriving back and the home is in flames with a child inside. The parent plunges into the flames and either rescues the child or loses his life. Who would go into those flames in their right mind? Only the person with love. A priest in a concentration camp during the second world war volunteered to substitute for a man who was to be shot in reprisal. The man had a wife and family and pleaded to be spared. The priest was executed in a painful death. He is now Saint Maximilian Kolbe. It is love that gives us fortitude and strength. Consider the martyrs of the Church’s history and the tortures they went through, the endurance they displayed out of love for our Lord. They were burnt at the stake, hung, drawn and quartered. They went through immense psychological pressure. But they remained faithful. Many under pressure did not - they lacked the fortitude, and so they did not gain the palm of martyrdom. Their love for our Lord was very limited and they gave way for something else - their comfort or peace of mind. Consider, say, Saint Maria Goretti. She was a poor 12 year old girl in the south of Italy. She was attacked by someone much older than herself and her purity and innocence was threatened. She resisted right to death. She refused to sin out of love for God. She showed heroic fortitude, though she was a child. This was because she loved God greatly. There have been other child saints who have endured sickness with great fortitude, offering up their sufferings constantly to God for their own sins and the sins of others. Such was the case of the two children of Fatima, Francisco and Jacina who are now beatified.
So we must take the means to grow in love for our Lord and this requires that we adopt a proven plan for the living of a spiritual life. If we do not keep resolutely to some such plan we are not allowing a deep love of God to grow in our heart. The fortitude and strength to bear difficulties will not be there.
Apart from a generous life of piety, we also need to practice mortification and self-denial. Imagine a person who every time they feel like doing something, they give in to that feeling. Would such a person have strength of will? Of course not. Their will is only used to doing things that are easy. To strengthen the will, the will has to be accustomed to doing what is difficult. Inasmuch as being faithful to one’s duty is difficult, just being faithful to one’s duties will strengthen the will. But every time we also mortify ourselves, we strengthen our willpower more, such as going without some very tasty food, or being sure to make Friday a true day of penance, doing a good job of Lent, never just sleeping on but getting up according to plan, and so forth. So if we want to be strong in spirit we ought ask, do I practise self-denial?
Fortitude cannot grow if we do not resist temptations to sin, including deliberate venial sins. If a person begins to be a little bit slack about turning away from impure thoughts or images or conversations, that person will weaken. But if the occasion of temptation is quickly resisted, fortitude in the matter of purity will grow. Again, it takes strength to be meek and not stubborn and bad tempered. Giving in to impatience, bad moods and other temptations will not increase fortitude. Every temptation to sin is an opportunity to exercise the fortitude of Christ. Resolute repentance should follow deliberate venial sin - and that is another reason why frequent, weekly Confession is an excellent practice. It involves repentance from frequent and daily venial sins, accompanied by the grace of the Sacrament. In fact, the crosses and adversities of life, faced with reliance on the power and grace of God, will strengthen us in our spiritual life. Many of the saints have pointed out that tribulation is a blessing in disguise, it is a grace and an opportunity. For that reason the great saints have preferred crosses and tribulations to a trouble-free life. It is obvious that without the cross we cannot hope to be a true disciple of Christ - and the true disciple of Christ actively takes up his cross and follows our Lord. To do this we must develop fortitude, or we will do all we can to avoid difficulty and tribulation.But very importantly, if we hope to grow in the virtue of fortitude, the fortitude that is an infused share in the fortitude of Christ, we must be receiving the Sacraments as often as possible, recognising in them our main encounter and involvement with the person of Christ. They are the principal channels of divine grace, through which we receive the life of Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. His life floods into our souls and grows like a river within, an inner spring. If our own efforts are being sustained, then the regular and devout reception of the sacraments will impart Christ’s life and virtues within us. Let us then make Mass the centre of our lives, our Sunday Mass, but if possible daily Mass, and Confession at least monthly, best of all, weekly. Let us set out to make use of the means to be strong persons of fortitude because to attain holiness we must be strong. Putting on the mind of Christ means making his virtue of fortitude our own.