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An Elusive and Essential Virtue

Tales of heroism intrigue us. The story of Jeremiah Denton [1] – an American Navy Airman and later U.S. Senator, shot down over North Vietnam and held in the infamous Hanoi Hilton – is a gripping account of courage. In a propaganda video, his captors forced him to say the Communists were treating him humanely. Taking advantage of the bright lights to disguise his efforts, he used his eyes to blink the word “TORTURE” in Morse Code. He knew the Communists would later catch up with him, and he would suffer the consequences. They did, and he did. But what a magnificent example of doing the right thing, whatever the consequences.

Courage does not mean fearlessness. Nor is it courageous to do reckless things. The true virtue of courage is guided by reason; it moderates and directs our fears and reckless urges. There is a time to dig trenches, and there is a time for frontal assaults. Fortitude is a virtue that harnesses both impulses in the right place and time.

Courage is more unpredictable than the other virtues. A temperate person expects to exert self-control at his next meal or drink. A just person plans on paying upcoming bills on time. But the capacity for responding with courage under duress is more a hope than a certainty.

A mysterious interplay of honor, respect, and love inspires courage. The courage of Civil War soldiers is almost incomprehensible today, but historians discern in them a deep sense of duty and honor. In the Battle of the Wilderness, for example, nearly 18,000 Yankees were killed or wounded. But the soldiers cheered when General Grant ordered the army not to give up, to pursue General Lee’s Confederate army south. Unimaginable courage.

Beyond duty and honor, other factors enter into courage. During the Vietnam War, the “expert planners” – i.e., the “best and the brightest” believed they could organize the most efficient fighting units in history. But disrupting military units with personnel changes based on expertise alone damaged morale. Soldiers fight for their country, but in the heat of battle, they fight for their buddies first. Human relationships form the common denominator in most instances of courage.

Love of God and neighbor is the foundation of Christian courage. Jesus calls the Twelve to be His coworkers. He tells them to take up their crosses and follow Him as a band of brothers. But they could only do so through the courage rooted in their love and trust of Him and of one another. And they would need that courage, since every one of them except St. John died a martyr.

If we hope to be courageous, we must return to Jesus, the font of all Christian courage. Our love must go beyond mere affection. Love for Jesus necessarily includes love for His law and His teachings. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love….These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:10-11)


We measure our love for Jesus by our desire to obey Him, including “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12) When we honor His words and law, we become honorable. And the desire to defend Christian honor inspires courage in us.

Honorable people express their honor with reverence. When they reverence their nation’s history, calling to mind the good and the bad – they sustain their patriotism and deepen their love of country. They reverently salute the flag. Similarly, reverence at Mass, respect for this sacred space, the respectful reception of Holy Communion – all deepen our love and sustain our commitment to Jesus and His Church. With reverence, we strengthen our honor and are more likely to defend it with courage.

In the Gospel, the miracles of Jesus are usually quite practical, inviting our trust. He cures the sick, He feeds the hungry, and He even raises the dead. The rare “special effects” miracles – when Jesus walks on water, for example – at first glance, have little immediate practical purpose. But only the Deity has dominion over the raging waters of the sea. So when He walks on water during a storm, Jesus reveals His divinity. Peter’s flicker of courage in response is the result of his trust in Jesus. If only for a few moments, Peter becomes God-like, walking on water with the Lord.

In Jesus, we too have dominion over the seas, the mountains, and all creation – a dignity we grasp by faith. If only for a few moments in the life of Peter, the Gospel scene confirms this observation by Saint Athanasius: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” – but only if we keep faith in Jesus.

God is all-powerful and rules from on high. Yet He is also courageous in a way because He gave up His life for the salvation of the world. How intriguing and mysterious it is to say that an omnipotent God is brave! Hence, the mystery of courage is ultimately rooted in the courage of Jesus Himself. If we want to be like God, we also must pray that He will share His courage with us.

We don’t know whether courage will sustain us in the inevitable tribulations of life. God does not grant His grace in advance. So we hope. But this we know with certainty: We can fortify our hope as honorable and reverent Christians, striving to know and love Jesus by walking in His ways.

“Take courage and be a man. Keep the mandate of the Lord, your God, following his ways and observing his statutes, commands, ordinances, and decrees, that you may succeed in whatever you do.” (1 Kings 2:2b-3)


*Image: Jesus and Peter on the Water [2] by Gustave Brion, 1863 [Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, Utah]

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.