Overcoming Fear on a Stormy Night in Galilee

The Gospel from Saturday’s daily Mass (Saturday of the 2nd Week of Easter) describes troubles rising and demonstrates how to endure them:

When it was evening, the disciples of Jesus went down to the sea, embarked in a boat, and went across the sea to Capernaum. It had already grown dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea was stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were afraid. But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading (John 6:16-21).

The images in this passage are reminiscent of the journey of life. The disciples have set out in a boat to cross to the other shore. We, too, have set out for another shore in our life. Darkness grows for them as it often does for us. The winds are contrary, and the sea becomes choppy. The must row because the sails are useless. So it is for us also. We would rather let the wind carry us effortlessly to the other shore, but while life has many pleasant moments when we can do this, there are other times when the storms and winds assail us and make our journey difficult.

The disciples are a few miles into their journey when the crisis arises—or is it a blessing? They see Jesus walking on the water. Although He is their blessing, they don’t see it that way. Other gospel passages say that they thought they were seeing a ghost (e.g., Matt 14:26).

Life can be like this. Our blessing, our solution, our healing can be right in front of us, yet we are terrified. I remember one time when my cat was trapped in the attic of the rectory (I have no idea how she got up there). We made an opening in the ceiling to get her out, but she was too terrified to come near enough that I could let her down. It took a long time (and some kitty snacks) to lure her. Although I was her rescuer, she saw me as her tormenter. We are often like this, fearing the very Savior sent to us. We are like children who scream in fright as the doctor approaches with the shot that will cure or prevent sickness. The Lord God once said of us,

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. But the more I called them, the farther they ran from Me …. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in My arms, but they never realized that it was I who healed them … [who] bent down to feed them (Hosea 11:1-4).

Yes, we often fear the very source or means of our blessing.

The text says, “… and they were afraid.” They are looking right at Jesus, their savior, yet they do not realize it; they do not recognize Him and are afraid. We, too, are like this. Why do we sometimes fear Jesus, the very source of our salvation? Because He does not always heal us on our terms. He talks of strange remedies like the cross. Strangely, He permits storms in our life and we are both fearful and resentful. However, the very cross and storms we fear are often the means by which He saves us! We need some degree of suffering and storms to keep us humble, to help us to grow in wisdom, to trust Him, and to keep calling on Him. Jesus talks of unsettling things like taking up our cross and following Him, losing our life so as to find it and save it. Jesus Himself won the victory hanging on a cross, not astride a war-horse slaughtering His enemies.

We see Jesus coming toward us in a storm, but rather than simply stopping the storm, He tells us not to be afraid. Why doesn’t He just take away the storm? I don’t know; He simply says, Do not be afraid. It is I. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, In this world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).

Jesus wants His presence to be enough for us. He is with us, so why are we afraid? There are going to be storms; that’s a promise—but He will be with us; that, too, is a promise. There’s a saying that’s particularly: “Don’t tell God how big your storm is. Tell the storm how big your God is.”

The gospel passage we are discussing ends abruptly by saying, They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading. Well, what do you know, they finally understand that it is Jesus and they reach the shore!

Note that there is no indication in the passage that the storm ended. The winds may have still been blowing, the seas still rough, but none of that matters once they have reached their destination. One may think that this destination merely refers to the boat docks at Capernaum, but that would be worldly, limited, and erroneous. The shore to which we all sail is none other than the Lord Himself. He is our peace, our goal, our destination.

At times His solutions may involve paradox. The cross is strange medicine to the worldly—but loss can usher in gain, a door may close only that another may open, death can bring life. Do not be afraid; He is near. That is not a ghost approaching you in the storm, it is the Lord! All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).

This is a vignette, an essay on life. Storms will come, but the solution is near: Do not be afraid. It is I.

Help me, Lord, to know that you are the source of my peace. You are always near; Help me to hear your voice, saying, Do not be afraid. It is I.

There is an old gospel song that has these lyrics:

I love the Lord;
He heard my cry;
And he pitied every groan.
Long as I live;
And troubles rise;
I’ll hasten to his throne

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Overcoming Fear on a Stormy Night in Galilee

The Cardinal Virtues: Fortitude

Fortitude, Pietro Perugino

In exploring the cardinal virtue of fortitude, it is helpful to follow the schema of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae, qq. 123-140), where he treats it expansively. Because I am summarizing a large amount of material here, I have not included references for each specific point below. Please allow the previous citation of the Summa to serve for the entire post.

Not only is fortitude a cardinal virtue, it is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit, of course, elevates this natural virtue to something greater and more directly rooted in faith and in God. In today’s article, we will consider fortitude as a cardinal virtue and therefore ponder it primarily as a natural and human virtue.

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

In its strictest and loftiest sense, fortitude is the virtue that enables us to face the danger of death; in this sense it is at the root of martyrdom. However, fortitude is operative at every level short of mortal danger as well. By it one endures in order to overcome not merely physical dangers, but spiritual ones as well, which are enemies of our soul and impediments to our salvation. Therefore, the chief and most common act of fortitude is enduring in order to see a thing through despite obstacles, hardships, persecution, and any number of other difficulties.

As we have noted before, “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Fortitude is no exception. There are two vices opposed to fortitude:

Timidity or cowardice is the defect. While there are proper fears which teach us to shun or flee what we ought, timidity or cowardice leads us to avoid what virtue requires of us. It is especially serious when such fear leads us or makes us willing to violate divine law in order to avoid what we fear. As a defect of fortitude, timidity makes us indisposed to endure hardships or difficulties and influences us to give up easily or to refuse to do what is reasonably required of us.

Insensibility to fear or foolhardiness is the excess. As noted, there are some things we should reasonably fear and avoid. Insensibility or foolhardiness causes us to rush into danger when not required. As a result, this excess amounts to a form of stupidity, pride, impulsiveness, and/or presumption.

Thus, fortitude as a virtue stands in the middle between cowardice and foolhardiness. It regulates our tendencies to these extremes.

Just as the seven deadly sins have related sins which spring from them (which St. Thomas calls “daughters”), the virtues have what St. Thomas calls “parts.” These parts are different aspects of the virtue that help us to describe it or recognize it in action.

  1. Magnanimity – This word literally means “large-minded” and it refers to pondering great things such that we are inspired to yearn for or pursue them. Magnanimity helps us to comprehend with our mind things that are great, honorable, virtuous, and worthwhile. By it we he lay hold of a kind of vision for our goals; we are inspired to reach for them and are willing to endure difficulties and obstacles to attain them.
  2. Magnificence – This word literally means doing great things. With magnanimity we consider great, virtuous, and honorable things to pursue; with magnificence we set about accomplishing them, overcoming difficulties and being willing to make sacrifices to do so.
  3. Patience – This 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 excessive sadness or anger. Patience helps us to endure painful or difficult things without weakening in our faith or in our commitment to the truth and the pursuit of our spiritual goals.
  4. Perseverance – This helps us to pursue good purposes steadily in spite of difficulties, delays, fatigue, and the common temptation to eventual indifference if results are not quickly forthcoming. Many worthy goals take a long time, even generations, to accomplish. Perseverance keeps us steadfast.

Fortitude is rightly numbered among the cardinal virtues. The word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo/cardin, meaning hinge. Many of the other virtues swing upon the hinges of fortitude.

Fortitude is more than mere bravery. It is a beautiful virtue that considers great things, enduring difficulties to attain to them, but doing so via the middle path, avoiding both cowardice and foolhardiness.