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 or her life in defense of a just cause. (CCC # 1808)
On the front steps of the New York City Public Library sits two massive stone lions – one of which is named “Fortitude” and the other “Patience”. The strength and resolve of the lion is an apt symbol for this cardinal virtue but I have learned that the “resolve of a lion” can come in many shapes and sizes. Fortitude can just as easily be witnessed in the tiny figure of a Bl. Teresa of Calcutta as it can in the steely determination of a Winston Churchill. The common element to each figure is that both had backbone and (come what may) each lived his or her life by what he or she knew to be true, just and right.
The first line of the Catechism’s description of this virtue is worthy of added consideration. Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. From this I would argue that fortitude can only be found and achieved in life when there is an awareness of acknowledgement of an objective “good”. The “good” calls forth fortitude. The relativistic thrust of our times cannot promote the virtue of fortitude because there is no “good” to pursue. Everything is relative. So, the best we can hope to achieve is a shallow “live and let live” philosophy that really goes nowhere and ultimately does not satisfy the longing of the human heart.
But the tenor of the times we have inherited does not have to be our choice.
Within fortitude is an awareness of our origin and worth and also a goal to strive for and achieve – both a beginning and an end. The awareness may be expressed in specific religious terminology or in universal ethical principles. The awareness states that there is a dignity and worth to the human person and that choices – individual or collective as a society – either uphold and acknowledge this dignity and worth or deny and degrade this dignity and worth and, yes, there are some things worth fighting and sacrificing for.
Fortitude’s close connection to patience also demonstrates that there are complex realities to be weighed, balanced and judged in the pursuit of the good. An awareness of “the good” does not by necessity only lead to an extreme fanaticism that denies the worth of all else. (This, I would argue is in fact a sin against the good.) Both Bl. Teresa and Churchill faced extremely complicated realities in their pursuit of the good and both demonstrate that the true fortitude and patience of a lion is found in the willingness to navigate, search for and choose the good in a maze of complicated and sometimes competing realities.
The brazen arrogance of fanaticism has nothing in common with the discerning virtue of fortitude.
When I work with a man who is considering the possibility of a call to priesthood I encourage him to be attentive to what brings him joy in life. Where happiness can be fleeting; joy is a deep rooted contentment and fulfillment that can be present and known even in the midst of struggle, isolation and persecution. Joy (which cannot be contrived on our part) is the surest indicator of the presence of God. This depth of joy even in the midst of struggle links it closely with fortitude.
If you want to know joy in life then develop the virtue of fortitude that pursues the true good.
As all lions know; there is a thrill in the hunt!