Courage or fortitude is one of the cardinal virtues. The Catechism defines it as “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” (CCC 1808). Courage is one of the keys for us to live uprightly and with dignity. Today’s readings exhort us to live by this virtue in faith, and not to be governed by fear.
The prophet Elijah has an encounter with God on the holy mountain. God is preceded, however, by three extraordinary phenomena which normally provoke fear: a strong and heavy wind, an earthquake and a fire. Elijah may have been afraid of all these, but he does not withdraw in fear. The Lord had told him to go outside and stand on the mountain, so he remains standing, waiting for the Lord, who, however, was not present in the three dramatic forces. The passage makes use of the “3+1” narrative technique. The three phenomena prepare the way for the “+1” of God’s arrival in the subtle moment of calm. Elijah shows profound reverence – fear of the Lord – at the arrival of the “tiny whispering sound.”
In a remarkable parallel, the Gospel also mentions three things that cause fear. The disciples have a strong wind blowing against them, they are being tossed about by the waves, and most terrifying of all, they see what they take to be a ghost. Unlike Elijah on the mountain, the disciples are overcome with fear.
We are led to reflect on things that usually cause us fear: difficulties that upset or prevent our plans like strong headwinds, upheavals in life that cause instability like earthquakes or big waves, and mysterious natural or unnatural occurrences like fire or a ghost. The virtue of courage enables us to remain firm despite all these. It keeps our instinctual fear in check so that we can encounter God.
Another aspect of courage is “constancy in the pursuit of the good.” This has a military connotation, calling forth synonyms like manliness, bravery and valor. In a battle, courage is what enables us to persevere in opposing a stronger enemy. In the pursuit of the good, we fight courageously despite what sometimes seems like overwhelming odds against us.
Constancy in the pursuit of good certainly describes the attitude of St. Paul, whom we see in today’s second reading as a man in turmoil, with “great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart. His anguish is caused by his love for his own people, his fellow Jews, who have resisted his efforts to evangelize them. The Jews have received many privileges, as Paul readily acknowledges. To them belongs the so-called seven gifts: adoption, glory, covenants, the law, worship, promises and the patriarchs. They are the Chosen People, and God, throughout history, has fought on their side. Knowing this, Paul would not recklessly pick a battle with them. But he knows that they must still receive the greatest gift of all, faith in Jesus Christ. In his determination to share this gift, Paul courageously perseveres through every difficulty. The basis for his courage is Jesus, “the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever.”
At the center of today’s readings are the words of Jesus to the disciples, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The basis for our courage, whether against our natural fears or in support of our firm pursuit of the good, is the person of Jesus Christ. His statement, “It is I,” alludes to God’s revelation of his name to Moses, “I AM.” To be in the presence of God is to have all we need to face the turbulent storms of life. Elijah’s experience on the mountain teaches us the same lesson. When he recognizes God in a tiny whispering sound, he no longer pays attention to the wind, the earthquake and the fire.
When Jesus says, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid,” the wind and the waves are still threatening the disciples. In that moment, his words may seem like no more than a tiny whispering sound. Yet he cannot be ignored, for he is standing on the water! Peter finds himself between two frightening options: either to remain in the boat and face the power of nature, or to approach this “ghost” and face the power of God. At Jesus’ word, “Come,” Peter courageously chooses the way of faith. This is Jesus’ invitation to us whenever fear threatens to stop us or overwhelm us. He exhorts us to walk with him in faith. Peter’s moment of hesitation only makes the options clearer: to face danger on our own results in our sinking into the world’s chaos; to reach out in faith to Jesus results in our salvation. When we call on him in prayer, “Lord, save me!”, he stretches out his hand and catches us.
Today we ask the Lord: “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.” He shows us his kindness in every tiny whispering sound, in every gentle nudge of the Holy Spirit. He grants us his salvation when he stretches out his hand on the Cross. With faith we remain firm in our conviction that his sacrifice on the Cross has saved us all; with courage we remain constant in our pursuit of the good, which is his holy will.
What are my fears, apprehensions and doubts? Is my life governed by the virtue of fortitude or by fear? In the storms of life, do I grasp Jesus’ hand so he can catch me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.