The Gift of Fortitude

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe are meditating on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What does Christ do for us? What happens when God is in our life? Christianity is not just about things that happen outside of us. Christianity is something that happens to us. God intervenes in our interior. He pours his spirit into us to transform us. “I will give them one heart,” he says, “and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh” (Ez 11:19).

Jesus doesn’t just demand a change of heart. He gives us a new heart. Or rather, his Spirit breathes within our heart, to bring it back to life.

Much of this is about a change in perspective, and so the first three gifts, wisdom, understanding, and counsel, are all about how we see. The Holy Spirit blows through our eyes and our minds, driving us to see more deeply, and to see the Father at work in our lives. It’s not only that he changes how we act. More deeply, he changes how we see. It’s not just that he gives us the oomph to get through life. Heaven itself will be an extension of our powers so that we can see the invisible God, and delight in his goodness.

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But a full transformation cannot just be about perspective. It also seeps down into our ordinary life.

The tradition distinguishes different “sets” within the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom and understanding are about contemplation: just knowing God. The other five are about living life in this world. Both are essential, and they are inseparable. When the Holy Spirit comes, he gives us all seven gifts together: contemplation and action. He transforms and enlivens our heart in its entirety, which includes both.

Within the active life, there are the ordinary moments, and the difficult ones. We need counsel and fortitude to help us deal with difficult times. But the Holy Spirit isn’t only there during difficult times. The generic gift of “knowledge” shows that we know God’s presence in all things, not just the “important” ones, and piety (which we will discuss in time) is an attitude that marks all our actions. Fear of the Lord, finally, is about our most basic sense of values, what we hope for and fear to lose.

The Holy Spirit is in all of these things.

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Fortitude is, in a way, the easiest gift to understand. There are times that we struggle. Sometimes love demands more of us than we have to give. God does not abandon us at those times. He gives us his strength. Fortitude is the strength to get through: “strength” would also be a fine translation of the word.

It’s really impossible to think about Catholic morals without the gift of fortitude. God does demand the impossible of us. The Church doesn’t teach that the moral life is easy. And – please never forget this – the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church does not teach that you just have to try harder on your own.

Catholic moral teaching (which we might call the doctrine of the difficult parts of the active life, the parts governed by Counsel and Fortitude) is about what the Holy Spirit can accomplish in us. We are not meant to do it on our own, because at the heart of Catholicism is the belief that we don’t have to do it on our own. God helps. He gives us the strength to do what we could not do ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us heroes.

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Christianity puts us in impossible situations. Martyrdom is the classic example. No one has the natural strength to be willing to die. All of our strength is ordered to keeping ourselves alive. Christianity calls us beyond the ordinary, to be willing to suffer what no one is willing to suffer.

Martyrdom literally means, not death, but “witness.” Martyrdom is a witness not just to our values, but to the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. How, people should ask, is that person able to handle such difficulties? There must be something divine going on!

But this is the theme of all our lives. Catholic motherhood is a martyrdom. Celibacy is a martyrdom. Honestly, even being just, in a world that is not just, is a martyrdom. We can do it – we can embrace the true good, come what may – because Jesus has not left us as orphans.

“Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name: ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:24).

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Do I expect God to help me with the hard things in my life?