Early in the pandemic, as Philadelphia came under stay-at-home orders, Ben Brandt, during a Wednesday night prayer circle, prayed for “spiritual fortitude” as we faced the demands of fighting the virus. I didn’t think I had ever actually used the phrase “spiritual fortitude,” but I liked it. So of course I googled.
I learned that Christian psychologists at Hope College are doing research on spiritual fortitude, comparing it with the psychological categories of “resilience” and “grit.” They described fortitude as “enabling people to endure and make redemptive meaning from adversity through their sacred connections with God, others and themselves.” The Roman Catholic definition in the Catechism is more poetic: “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.” It is one of the four cardinal virtues, along with prudence, justice and temperance. (Wis. 8:7). Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Catholic theologian, said that prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.*
What a virtue for this moment in time! For in all that we need to do, in accordance with prudence and justice, the temptation to not do it is great. Prudence and justice tell us that we should wear masks and practice social distancing to protect ourselves and our neighbors from COVID, especially since the most vulnerable are often so because of economic inequality or systemic racism. But it’s hard to wear a mask always, to practice social distance consistently, and to bear the losses that come from doing so — whether it’s the chance to go to a bar, or to go maskless on a beautiful day, or to worship together in person. Justice and prudence tell us that it is past time to address racism in this country, whether that involves changing police culture and practice, removing Confederate monuments, or fighting for equity in educational funding. We need fortitude to have difficult conversations, to keep learning, to be politically active and to keep our attention on the goal when we become tired or distracted. (But please note: African Americans and other people of color have never had the luxury of “avoiding” racism and have shown great fortitude in facing it and fighting it. It’s time for white people to also learn constancy in pursuit of anti-racism). These are but two examples. In all the ways we are called to do good we need fortitude to stay the course.
In Catholic theology, the human virtues are understood to be acquired through habit and effort, although “purified and elevated by divine grace,” in the words of the Catechism. As Protestants we acknowledge the role of habit and effort, but place more emphasis on grace, recognizing that fortitude — like all good things— is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit. Either way, it’s a worthy prayer: Gracious God, grant us spiritual fortitude. Amen.
Grace and Peace, Cheryl
*Living Graciously on Planet Earth by Robert P. Vande Kappelle, p.64