The word “virtue” can be one of those oft-repeated non-words that we digest as dull and lifeless. This reaction is completely understandable – the familiar becomes banal. But it is good to shake ourselves out of this and ask the Spirit to refresh and renew our vision to see things as they really are. The Christian concept of virtue simply consists of a person being all that it is possible for him or her to be (the realization of the human capacity for being). They are gifts that bud from the grace of God, which surge through the disciple and manifest him or her as a radiant, free, happy, inexplicably wondrous child of God.
One of these gifts that is seldom appreciated for its impact in our lives is courage. We don’t carry swords, fight in battles, lodge on the frontiers or live harvest-to-harvest anymore – we work on computers, drive in cars, store our food in Tupperware and have temperature-controlled houses. So why do we need courage?
“Do not be afraid” is the most repeated phrase in the Bible. In fact, it is repeated 365 times – one for each day. Isn’t that somewhat shocking? It’s not variations of “I love you” or “Come to me all who labor”, but “Do not be afraid”. That must mean two important things: 1) God is telling us that fear will be a huge part of our lives and, if you don’t think it is, you are kidding yourself and 2) He can do something about it (why would He tell us to rise above fear unless He could give us the power to do it?).
We need to admit that fear is a very real part of our lives. Every day we are met with situations and decisions that grip us by the throat – some lightly, some tightly – and make us want to shrink away, to run. Think of the Dark Island from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. How often does a “great dark mountain rising out of the sea” meet us on our life’s voyage, an “utter blackness as if they had come to the edge of moonless and starless night”, “not land at all, not even, in an ordinary sense, a mist… [but] Darkness”?
And, though they vary in severity, hue and gravity, this fear-inducing darkness meets us every day. Fear really is one of the biggest problems in our lives. Michael O’Brien – one of today’s best fiction writers, who happens to be Catholic as well – was recently asked what he learned from times of struggle, hopelessness and discouragement. His response:
I saw that fear – not just sin, but fear – blocks out the actions of God. It can… What have I learned? After sin, fear is my greatest enemy.
Sin is our worst enemy: evil flooding into our very selves. But after that, nothing is more hellish and can keep us from all the good the Lord has for us than fear – the fumes of that flood.
If fear is one of our biggest problems, then it makes sense that courage is one of the biggest “answers” in our lives. St. Teresa of Avila goes so far as to mark courage as perhaps the most important characteristic one can have when on the “spiritual journey” that is the life of a disciple. Why? Because fear won’t lead us home. Fear makes us shrink and deflate; it makes us “turn tail” as most of the members of the Dawn Treader would have done. But courage literally “gives heart” so that we may attain and achieve what is good for us and our brothers and sisters. It frees us to not be steered by our fears, but by our internal compass, by Truth, by God Himself. It liberates us to plow forth on the mission – our mission – given to us by the King.
We need not even be bogged down by the fact that there is fear in our lives. We are not called to be fear-less. We are called to be courageous – willing to go on in the face of fear. Fear will come (doesn’t God allude to that by repeating a phrase 365 times in the Bible?) and when it does may we embody Reepicheep, saying,
This is a very great adventure, and no danger seems to me so great as that of knowing when I get back to Narnia that I left a mystery behind me though fear.
So how do we acquire courage? By asking for a gift. We don’t have to rise above fear strictly on by our own moxie and savvy. Of course grace isn’t magic (it requires our co-operation) but it is, first and foremost, from the Father. We can’t defeat darkness. We can’t, of our own accord, flick the fears off our back and shimmy on up the mountain. But, our Father, who confidently stands as Lord over all, has no problem with turning our darkness into light. Let’s rejoice that, with God dwelling in us, we are empowered to rise above all evil. Alleluia!
Let us beg our Father to pour out on us this gift of courage, which, like Reepicheep, can often come in a small package, but can nonetheless steer the ship straight – through choppy, dark waters to Aslan’s country.