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Fortitude, Patience, and Meekness: Three Virtues We Often Separate, but That Belong Together

June 15, 2017

The Virtues, by Raphael Sanzio, Vatican Museums

There is an important interplay and balance between the virtues that many modern minds set in opposition to one another. False dichotomies often prevail when the subtlety of virtues are lost or their meanings are grasped in simplistic or inaccurate ways.

Consider three virtues that are related and which enable and moderate one other: fortitude, patience, and meekness. To most people, these virtues seem more opposed than related. Today, fortitude conjures up an image of a fearless warrior in battle or an intense prophet fearing nothing of the opinion of men. Meekness seems to be thought synonymous with weakness and conciliation. Finally, patience in modern parlance often means either not acting at all or acting indecisively and without courage.

There are, of course, many problems with this thinking; the modern understanding of these words is quite different from their biblical or scholastic meaning. So part of our task is to recover a more accurate understanding of these words, but another aspect is to see how these virtues balance and moderate one another.

Fortitude – Consider first that fortitude is the virtue that enables us to withstand even great difficulties that hinder us from attaining our true goal. A chief feature of fortitude is being able to endure difficulties and see an act or decision through to the end. It is not merely being brave in the face of danger or sallying forth into battle; it is also being steadfast in spite of obstacles and enduring without sadness or loss of faith.

As with any virtue, there are certain sins that may emerge (by excess or defect) in relation to fortitude. Timidity, pusillanimity, faintheartedness, and softness are defects of fortitude. There are also excesses related to fortitude such as being foolhardy, presumptuous, overly ambitious, vainglorious, and headstrong (pertinacious).

Thus, patience and meekness are aspects of fortitude, especially in helping to govern excesses related to fortitude. While the modern mind considers them to be in opposition to fortitude, they are actually integral parts of it, because they not only moderate fortitude but are ways of living and expressing it.

Patience – This is perhaps the most frequent form under which fortitude is exercised in the face of the difficulties of life. St. Thomas Aquinas said that patience is attached to fortitude because it helps us to resist giving way to sadness and to bear up under the difficulties of life with a certain equanimity or steadiness of soul. By it, we do not give way easily to emotional sadness or excessive anger. Thus patience is an act of fortitude, because it bids us to endure painful or difficult things without weakening in our faith or our commitment to the truth. With patience, we are steady in the face of the vexations and contradictions of life.

Sadly, many in our culture equate patience with weakness. However, to be patient and to endure is a great strength. As St. Thomas points out, Endurance is more difficult than aggression … because endurance implies a length of time, whereas aggression is consistent with sudden movement (Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 123, a. 6).

The fact is that many troubles and contradictions last for a long time. Not all (or even most) things can be changed for the better simply or quickly, so patience and suffering are often necessary acts of fortitude; they require great strength and brave endurance. Jesus said, In this world you shall have tribulation, but have courage, I have overcome the world (John 16:33). St Paul added, Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:21).

While fortitude will often summon us to face danger bravely, to proclaim the faith, and to do what is right; while it will rebuke cowardliness, faintheartedness, and softness; it will also enable us to endure difficulties without sadness, fear, depression, or excessive anger. In all these ways there is strength and courage to be found. While the modern mind does not often connect patience with fortitude, it is in fact one of its most common manifestations.

Meekness – Even more so the modern mind does not connect meekness with fortitude. The average person today does not even know the real definition of the word “meekness.” Most consider the word to be associated with being a pushover or a doormat. In this flawed sense, meekness is despised as weakness and fearfulness.

But meekness, in its traditional and theological sense, is anything but weakness. The meek are those who have authority over their anger, who can command and control its power, moderating and directing its energy to good rather than destructive ends.

Aristotle defined meekness as the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough. Anger has an important place in the human psyche but it must be mastered and moderated, for it is unruly. The meek are those who have mastered their anger and know how to use its creative power to set things right.

In our culture, an “angry prophet” gets some credit as he denounces the powerful and vents his anger, but a prophet who is merely angry is not a true prophet. True prophets love God’s people; their anger results from the love of God, His truth, and His people. Beware mistaking true zeal born out of love with angry zeal, which sermonizes indiscriminately. The angry prophet preaches in order to get something off his chest and vent his anger. The true prophet speaks out of zealous love and from a meekness that gives him authority over his anger and zeal.

Fortitude without patience and meekness is like fire with nothing to contain it. Such a fire spreads wildly and destroys what it should illuminate and heat; it destroys what it should purify and transform.

Therefore, patience is not opposed to fortitude but rather is itself an act of fortitude because it courageously resists discouragement when the battle seems long and fierce. It enables fortitude to act over a long period, consistently and persistently, to attain an end that mere zeal would impatiently forsake in the absence of immediate results.

Similarly, meekness is also not opposed to fortitude but is also a form of it, by authoritatively governing the anger directed against injustice and error. The meek person is ultimately at peace deep inside, even while engaging in a struggle on the outside. This, of course, is essential for fortitude to reach its goal because reaching a goal (say, of establishing the truth, refuting error, or restoring justice and respect for life) is nearly impossible for a soul consumed by anger. Meekness, therefore, is the courage of fortitude along with the control that helps focus anger, zeal, and brave action.

Thus, as with so many things, we ought not to separate what God has joined, in this case fortitude, patience, and meekness. Scripture says, be angry but sin not (Eph 4:26). With respect to our virtues we might add this: have the courage and zeal of fortitude, but be not foolhardy, presumptuous, or headstrong.

Have the courage and zeal to enter the battle. Don’t be like so many people today who are soft, cowardly, and indiscriminately conciliatory. Conversely, enter not with wild, ungoverned fortitude (which isn’t really true fortitude at all); enter with a fortitude that is patient and willing to endure through what may well be a long battle. Enter with a fortitude that is authoritatively mastered and stabilized through meekness.

By God’s grace, true fortitude will win the day.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s play ball!”

    • for you says:

      No mention of the shooting of Congressmen yesterday on the New Advent web site save for one marginal article? SHOOTING the CONGRESSMEN (and I don’t care what side of the aisle they are on!). Shooting like at the CongressMEN not just at one Congressman even. This is second in severity only to shooting a sitting President but no mention of it here (and please, no reflection on you Msgr. who is always spot on with his articles). What is going on??! We can hear news for months on some serious events but then this which is SO VERY serious is not even mentioned and then pushed aside already like it is nothing to hardly mention? Very, very weird!!! No one says anything??! Really??

      • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

        Sounds like you need to write a blog. I am not a news source, and while I do comment on the News occasionally, it is not my main shtick. I write on Church topics and spirituality. Many others have written well and commented on this. Raymond Arroyo has done great work on this topic. Frankly I do not watch much news these days.

        I remain amazed at how Catholics like to savage other Catholics. Shame on you, you anonymous critic. I am not your enemy. Go find a real enemy to scorn.

  2. David Thomas says:

    Feast of Corpus Christi

    The Litany of the Most Blessed Sacrament, composed by St Peter Julian Eymard, the founder of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers. Saint Eymard also demonstrated devotion to Saint Philomena.

    Lord, have mercy. R. Lord, have mercy.
    Christ, have mercy. R. Christ, have mercy.
    Lord, have mercy. R. Lord, have mercy.
    Christ, hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.
    God the Father of Heaven, R. have mercy on us.
    God the Son, Redeemer of the world, R. have mercy on us.
    God the Holy Spirit, R. have mercy on us.
    Holy Trinity, one God, R. have mercy on us.

    Jesus, Eternal High Priest of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, R. have mercy on us.
    Jesus, Divine Victim on the Altar for our salvation, R. have mercy on us.
    Jesus, hidden under the appearance of bread, R. have mercy on us.
    Jesus, dwelling in the tabernacles of the world, R. have mercy on us.
    Jesus, really, truly and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament, R. have mercy on us.
    Jesus, abiding in Your fulness, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, R. have mercy on us.
    Jesus, Bread of Life, R. have mercy on us.
    Jesus, Bread of Angels, R. have mercy on us.
    Jesus, with us always until the end of the world, R. have mercy on us.

    Sacred Host, summit and source of all worship and Christian life, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, sign and cause of the unity of the Church, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, adored by countless angels, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, spiritual food, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, Sacrament of love, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, bond of charity, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, greatest aid to holiness, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, gift and glory of the priesthood, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, in which we partake of Christ, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, in which the soul is filled with grace, R. have mercy on us.
    Sacred Host, in which we are given a pledge of future glory, R. have mercy on us.

    Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
    Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
    Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

    For those who do not believe in Your Eucharistic presence, R. have mercy, O Lord.
    For those who are indifferent to the Sacrament of Your love, R. have mercy on us.
    For those who have offended You in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, R. have mercy on us.

    That we may show fitting reverence when entering Your holy temple, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That we may make suitable preparation before approaching the Altar, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That we may receive You frequently in Holy Communion with real devotion and true humility, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That we may never neglect to thank You for so wonderful a blessing, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That we may cherish time spent in silent prayer before You, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That we may grow in knowledge of this Sacrament of sacraments, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That all priests may have a profound love of the Holy Eucharist, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That they may celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in accordance with its sublime dignity, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That we may be comforted and sanctified with Holy Viaticum at the hour of our death, R. we beseech You, hear us.
    That we may see You one day face to face in Heaven, R. we beseech You, hear us.

    Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, R. spare us, O Lord.
    Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, R. graciously hear us, O Lord.
    Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, R. have mercy on us, O Lord.

    V. O Sacrament Most Holy, O Sacrament Divine,
    R. all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine.

    Let us pray,

    Most merciful Father,
    You continue to draw us to Yourself
    through the Eucharistic Mystery.
    Grant us fervent faith in this Sacrament of love,
    in which Christ the Lord Himself is contained, offered and received.
    We make this prayer through the same Christ our Lord. R. Amen.

  3. Ray says:

    Monsignor Pope,
    Thank you for this edifying article. I had a discussion this week with some friends about my difficulty with the recent increase in the use of the word “accompaniment” as pertains to the New Evangelization. My position was/is that accompaniment is not a virtue and that we should be stressing virtue more in our evangelization efforts. This article puts real meat on that idea for me. Thank you so much.

  4. Matthew Wade says:

    This is fantastic Msgr, thank you for posting it! Two virtues I’ve set myself a goal to work on this year (so far terribly) are meekness and patience – along with humility to give me an easy acronym: MPH.

    I’m printing this blog post to remind myself of it throughout the year.

    Thank you again very much!

  5. Ed says:

    Your commentary, Msgr, is brilliantly insightful and systematically rigorous as usual.

    One editorial quibble (these things are frustratingly common):
    “…when the subtlety of virtues are lost or their meanings are grasped in simplistic or inaccurate ways.” ought to read:
    “…when the subtlety of virtues IS lost or their meanings are grasped in simplistic or inaccurate ways.”
    because it is the subtlety whose loss is contemplated, not that of the virtues themselves. The phrase ‘of virtues’ describes the subtlety and is not the subject of the clause; the noun is singular, therefor the verb must be singular.

    • RAY - PORTSMOUTH - UK says:

      As Matthew says above, maybe we could all do with a great big dose of meekness, patience – and – what was the other one? Oh! That was it – ‘Humility’!!