The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 65, No 2, March-April 2012

Theology for the Laity

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit: IV

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


       The third of the Spirit's gifts that enriches the will is the gift of Fortitude. This is, of course, a name shared with the moral virtue, so we might profitably spend a moment considering the virtue of Fortitude, to learn how the gift compliments yet differs from it.

       St. Thomas Aquinas, reflecting St. Augustine, calls virtue "A good habit of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us...." (ST I-II, 55.4)

       The word "habit" comes from the Latin word habere, which means "to have." Our theology teaches us that habits are dispositions, tendencies within us by which we are moved to act. God has given us the freedom to choose from among many options; when we consistently use our freedom to choose good, we find good easier and easier to choose, and good actions easier and easier to perform. As we cultivate this disposition to choose good, it becomes more and more a part of who we are. Habit comes from the word that means "to have," so when we speak of habits, we describe something a person "has," namely, a disposition to act in a certain way.


       What sets Fortitude apart from the other virtues is the capacity it gives us to face hard tasks, and especially tasks that are dangerous. Fortitude strengthens our will to follow the good of reason despite our fear of bodily harm or hard work, and it places limits on our will when our will is moved to some rash action. St. Thomas Aquinas taught, "...Fortitude is about...curbing fear and moderating daring" (ST II-II, 123.3)


       This description needs to be understood carefully. We have all heard the term, "flight or fight." This is the arena in which Fortitude manifests itself. To lessen daring, Fortitude moderates the blind human tendency to fight. To curb fear, Fortitude encourages us to fight, if a stern reply is an appropriate response. We must always remember that virtues seek the mean between extremes. Fortitude, like all the virtues, is a habit of self-mastery. It particularly prods us to lay aside unreasonable fear, and directs us to rein in any temptation to unwise behavior through rash or hasty action.

       In our everyday life, Fortitude manifests itself more often by assisting us to face our fears than by reducing our inclination to lash out blindly. This is because danger exercises its own dampening effect on our bravery. And because danger is more apt to incite fear (urging us to run away) than to perform some act of foolhardy bravery, the virtue of Fortitude usually concerns itself with enabling us to withstand fear in the face of some perceived danger.


       Theologians call this manifestation of the virtue of Fortitude "active" Fortitude, because it equips us to face - and overcome - a specific, identifiable obstacle with courage and strength of will. We need only think of the Church's martyrs, whose Fortitude often impressed even their persecutors.

       But what of the individual who must endure a long, fatal illness? Or any of us who struggles with temptation? In these cases we are faced with forces that cannot be resisted, but must simply be endured. Here we may think of Jesus, confronted by the solders in the Garden, led helpless before Pilate, and, finally, nailed to the cross.


       What strengthened Jesus in these trials was the gift of Fortitude, a "passive" Fortitude that perfects the virtue of Fortitude, enabling us to endure what cannot be changed, to subdue our passions, to resist temptation, and to embrace austerity. As with the gifts of Piety and Fear of the Lord that we have already considered, the gift of Fortitude adds a dimension of love that may be lacking in the mere exercise of the virtue. This is the noble element that enabled Our Savior to beg forgiveness for his executioners as they nailed him to the cross on Calvary.

       If we examine the situations or conditions that call us to endurance, resistance of temptation, and moderation of our passions, we can see that many might easily call forth harsh anger or a dangerous relaxing of our moral standards. The virtue of Fortitude strengthens our will to face such events without shrinking from them. The gift of Fortitude helps us embrace, patiently and gracefully, the suffering that often accompanies such self-denial. One spiritual writer observes,

    If there is one thing more than another that the saints themselves found nearest the realms of impossibility, it was, surely, that of keeping the body in subjection, not by stifling its natural wants, but by curbing its unruly whims. It cost them years of labor, many a sacrifice and many a drop of blood. And they were saints. What, then, might not be said of the work ordinary Catholics are called upon to perform in virtue of the their religion? What of inordinate love, vanity, anger, insubordination, avarice? (James F. Carroll, C.S.Sp., God The Holy Ghost, p. 115)


       Christ is our example in everything we do, so the gift of Fortitude builds on the virtue and helps us imitate Christ's own patience and forbearance. At the beginning of this reflection we discussed the virtue of Fortitude as something we possess, namely, a disposition or habit of self-mastery. Although God works in and through us in the virtues, they are natural to us. The virtues require the supernatural assistance of the Spirit's gifts if they are to achieve their perfection. Another writer comments on the insufficiency of virtue to achieve the end we seek,

    Our good will does not always meet the task. How well we experience this when, after the grace of enlightenment following a good confession or a retreat, we make some resolution demanding courage, seek God's help in prayer, and then set to work - and fail! It needed something more, an even more divine help.

    The Holy Spirit takes pity on our weakness; he will not leave us sole masters of the strength we have received from him, He will complete it by a gift. The gift of fortitude comes to help our virtue of fortitude. The gift is not founded upon that strength which is our permanent possession, which we use or refrain from using at will...the gift comes from the Holy Spirit, and when it is he who takes possession of us, we submit to his irresistible pressure, we are no longer subject to the risks and vacillation of our own personal government. (H.D. Gardeil, O.P., The Holy Spirit in Christian Life, p. 35)


       Essentially, the Holy Spirit's gift of Fortitude is the gift of spiritual self-confidence. "With this gift...we no longer act as the sole lords and masters of our lives, but as the instruments of the power of the Spirit." (p. 37) This quote underlines those positive passive qualities the gift confers on us - something that might be hard to accept at first, as we are so used to the notion that we must roll up our sleeves and assume full responsibility for everything we do. One benefit of the gift of Fortitude is to relieve us of some of that overwhelming personal responsibility, for it a divine power, a perfection of the will, enabling the faithful soul to follow the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, with full confidence in Him in the hour of temptation, with magnanimous steadfastness in difficulties and with patient endurance of sufferings, and all this to the term of life's journey, to the end of the road which leads to heaven. (Carroll, p. 114)

       Lest this seem cowardly, or an excuse for shirking our responsibility, our author refers to St. Thomas Aquinas, who, he says,

    ...puts forth many reasons showing how much more strength is required for suffering or endurance than for action. To attack is to throw oneself into peril, but to support the shock is more noble, more diffi cult, more perfect. It is the strong who attack, the more feeble who endure. Again he who receives, receives the attack, he who suffers, feels the actual danger, whilst he who gives fight sees it only in the future. Hence, it is commonly said, that the best army is not the one most ardent in combat, but the one most enduring in fatigue. (Carroll, p. 116)


       However, these reflections on the gift of Fortitude should by no means be mistaken as justification for abdicating entirely - or even largely - our share of responsibility in the quest for our salvation. The gift is the Spirit's promise of assistance in our pilgrimage toward God's kingdom, and, hence, a source of hope. St. Thomas Aquinas writes

    Yet furthermore man's mind is moved by the Holy Ghost, in order that he may attain the end of each work begun, and avoid whatever perils may threaten. This surpasses human nature: for sometimes it is not in a man's power to attain the end of his work, or to avoid evils or dangers, since these may happen to overwhelm him in death. But the Holy Ghost works this in man, by bringing him to everlasting life, which is the end of all good deeds, and the release from all perils. A certain confidence of this is infused into the mind by the Holy Ghost Who expels any fear of the contrary. (II-II, 139.1)


       One of the maxims of our faith teaches that the Church believes as it prays. This means that we can look at our prayer life and gain an accurate picture of our doctrinal life. These words of St. Thomas echo one of our prayers, which begs God to bring to a happy conclusion the good work He has begun in us. This assures us that the Spirit's gift of Fortitude enables us to look beyond even the threat of death, confident that we may look forward in the future to the crown promised all God's heroes, even if our present heroic undertakings are thwarted by misfortune or the interference of God's enemies.


       Cardinal Manning, whom we quoted in our last reflection, writes that the first result of the gift of Fortitude is the ability to assess the spiritual challenges that await us. "If we have not courage and strength to bruise them under our feet, they will in the end bruise us under their power. Our character is the result of this conflict." (Internal Mission of the Holy Ghost, p. 206)

       These words call to mind a host of gospel challenges, such as Jesus' encounter with the man who said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." (Lk. 9:61)

       They suggest, too, the consoling words to St. Paul, who can laugh at hardship and say with absolute confidence, "I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13)

Perhaps most of all, though, they call to mind Moses' words to our ancestors in the desert, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life...." (Deut. 30:19)


       The gift of Fortitude is the Spirit's promise that if we are willing to choose the life God sets before us, we may rely upon the assistance that strengthened the numberless heroes of our faith throughout history. Each of us has our favorites, and if we are willing to do even the most cursory research we shall easily discover what obstacles the gift of Fortitude enabled them to overcome.

       We may, likewise, look at Mary, standing at the foot of the cross, and see in her silent grief, the acceptance of pain and sorrow that the gift of Fortitude, at least occasionally, strengthens us - or those we love - to embrace and endure.

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