In her now-famous Diary, written in an attic in Amsterdam, Anne Frank comments on the Dutch citizens helping to hide her Jewish family: “Our protectors, we call them. I asked Father what would happen to them if the Nazis found out they were hiding us. Pim said that they would suffer the same fate that we would. Imagine!”
In another famous image, from more recent days, twenty-one Coptic Christians clad in orange jumpsuits, kneel resolutely on a beach in Libya, their captors seeking to prove to the world just how shamed and overpowered are these soon-to-be killed prisoners. But the world also saw overwhelming courage.
Courage is visible. It exists in a moment when fear and danger have the upper hand, and yet the courageous person chooses to act in spite of the consequences. Courage exists because of the possibility for cowardice. It is the decision made for the good, when accepting evil would be the easier, safer option. Courage exists because we have free will.
Courage is seen when it is embraced. It appears in the most unlikely of places, quiet and hidden, unaware of its majesty and divine nature.
I have seen courage in a frail, silver-haired lady, who put on a red cashmere sweater and pearls, shuffled with her walker to the dining room, and joined in at Thanksgiving dinner, not because it was comfortable, but because it maintained her dignity.
I have seen courage in a father dropping off his daughter at the small, faith-based school outside of town, rather than the more prestigious option down the street with the gym, smart boards, and running track, because her soul is more precious to him than the empty approbation of the world.
I have seen courage in the woman choosing life, against the medical prognosis, knowing that hers is the vessel through which the Lord will bring a new soul into being, and her self-sacrifice is the means through which her life-witness is to be offered.
I have seen courage in the survivor who, despite fear, acknowledges abuse, because enabling the lie in shame and guilt is a far worse existence than standing alone, in freedom and truth.
I have seen courage in a cheerful, bold hero, visiting without fanfare the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, to keep the flame of faith alive in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I have seen courage in the humble, steadfast priests, binding the wounds of a bloodied Body of Christ, fulfilling the call of a faithful spouse to the Church.
And I have seen courage in two great churchmen, who have proposed a series of questions, doubts about the integrity of the Faith, and been cold-shouldered by their peers, as they await the answer they deserve because they have honored their vows and the duty of their office.
Those who choose to act with courage fully accepting the price they must pay are exceptions in every age.
It’s said that in 1519, upon arrival in the New World, Hernán Cortés ordered his men to burn their ships. He wanted all possible option of returning to what was safe and comfortable removed, forcing them to embrace the challenges and opportunities that lay before them. Only without the easy escape to their old life, and with total commitment to the task at hand, could they forge a new existence.
The desire to rationalize dwells deep within the human psyche. We often return to the supposed safety our ships, our safe but unhealthy patterns of behavior, our less than true-to-self decisions, not because we prefer them, but because they offer the path of least resistance, and allow us to put off, once more, the need to confront reality and all that truth demands.
Our greatest fear, in burning the ships, is that the conflagration will be looked upon as failure. Letting go of the neat and tidy – if empty and bankrupt – existence with which we have long been coping, will expose to the world that our existence was not as perfect as it seemed. The Evil One keeps us in chains by whispering mercilessly that we will be rejected when we embrace the light of truth.
Courage must be summoned to battle against and overcome these paralyzing fears. The light cast by the decision for truth exposes the lie. Yes, the decision will disrupt the status quo, but we will step onto the firm ground of the Lord’s truth and best for our lives in His will.
In “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost describes the moment of decision as a choice where only the beginning of the journey can be seen:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
Our vision does not pass beyond the bend. We see only the point of decision, and not the outcome, as we step ahead. Courage is this decision. We step ahead in faith.
We all know someone who is summoning courage. Perhaps we are doing it ourselves. Take heart and reach out, believe in them, offer the hope of acceptance in truth, and you will enable courage.
*Image: Hernán Cortés Destroys His Ships by Miguel González, 1698 [Museo de América, Madrid]