I once read that there was a person who felt a certain envy for the early martyrs of the Church.
Where most people feel fear, the author felt a sort of romantic stirring at the thought of dying before a firing squad in some filthy, anti-Christian hellhole, singing the Creed.
There are places, even today, where Christians get such opportunities forced upon them on far too regular a basis. Many despotisms still exist where Christians are butchered for their faith by the thousands each year. So it’s easy to think of the gift of fortitude as primarily having to do with screwing up your courage and facing some ghastly martyrdom like St. Lawrence roasting on a red hot griddle and gallantly mocking his murderers by saying, “You can turn me over, since I’m done on this side now.”
But here’s the thing: Fortitude is a sanctifying gift given to all of us, not just the infinitesimal minority of people who have faced epic and cinematic martyrdoms like Sts. Thomas Becket or Joan of Arc. What about the rest of us?
The key, I think, is found in the idea expressed by St. John the Baptist: “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Most of the exercise of fortitude is not seen in huge acts of heroism, but in small and persistent ones — little choices to lay down one’s life for the sake of Christ.
This is what pagan wisdom intuits when it teaches the ancient proverb “The love of wisdom is the practice of death.” It is what Jesus is talking about when he says that we must take up our cross, not suddenly in some sudden, final cinematic moment of martyred glory at the dramatic climax of our lives, but daily.
We spend our lives “offering our bodies as living sacrifices,” as Paul tells the Romans. We do the dishes the kids left behind when they ran off to play with their friends. We go in to work on Saturday to cover for a co-worker who is sick. We get up for the crying baby in the middle of the night.
We turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love the enemy who refuses to love us back, and say we are sorry even when it galls our pride to do it. We die to ourselves in a thousand little ways.
In so doing, we ready ourselves for the final climactic act of fortitude: when we hand our lives over to God completely, as Jesus did when he said, “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). That’s what Jesus is getting at when he tells us, “He who is faithful in very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10).
This is why St. Thérèse of Lisieux is a doctor of the Church. She had a thirst to do great things for God, but instead of directing her life toward epic martyrdom, God showed her the “Little Way”: small offerings of her life pursued in small ways, persistently, to the end. Little acts of forgiveness, little works of love. That takes all the fortitude most of us can muster. And it’s enough to make a saint.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.