Fortitude Goes Beyond Courage

A Register series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Naaman and Elisha, detail of a painting by Pieter de Grebber (1600–1652)
Naaman and Elisha, detail of a painting by Pieter de Grebber (1600–1652) (photo: Wikipedia)

As noted previously in this series, grace perfects nature. So we saw that the natural virtue of prudence is elevated by grace in the gift of counsel.

Similarly, fortitude is singular, in that it is both a cardinal virtue and a gift of the Holy Spirit. It comes after the gift of counsel because it gives us the guts to do what the gift of counsel tells our conscience must be done to obey Jesus.

Spiritual fortitude is sometimes called courage, and certainly it is related to courage. But it also goes beyond courage, which relates more to natural fortitude. The natural virtue of fortitude has in view earthly objects and tends to feed off earthly rewards and seek earthly goals.

So, for instance, in 2 Kings 5, we read about a Syrian general named Naaman, whom Scripture describes as a “mighty man of valor.” He had all sorts of natural fortitude and had gone into battle many times, as brave a man as you could ask for. And he had received the reward that such courage receives: rank, pomp, riches and honors.

But then he contracted leprosy. His slave girl, an Israelite, knew of a prophet in Israel named Elisha who was reputed to be able to heal leprosy. So his king dispatched him, not to Elisha (the powerful do not treat with the lower orders), but to the king of Israel. The king of Israel, however, was powerless and afraid of what Syria would do, since he couldn’t come up with a cure. So he sent Naaman and his delegation to Elisha, who told Naaman that God would cure him — if he would go and wash in the muddy waters of the Jordan seven times.

Naaman became furious. He was expecting mystical hocus-pocus and hand waving. Instead, he — the great and powerful he — was being ordered by some peasant to go wash in this dirty stream! What was wrong with the rivers of Syria? Why did he have to jump through hoops for this nobody? It was a direct offense to his dignity! So he stormed off.

However, some of his servants with cooler heads went after him and said, “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’” (2 Kings 5:13). With that, Naaman displayed his greatest act of courage yet: He swallowed his pride, humbled himself, washed in the Jordan and was cleansed.

Here we get the picture of the difference between the natural virtue of fortitude and the spiritual gift of fortitude. The latter builds on the former, and the former, while good, is fundamentally incomplete without the latter.

So, again, we see real natural fortitude in the life of Peter the Apostle. He did, after all, do more than most of us would do: He dropped his nets, left everything and followed Jesus. No doubt his wife was not too keen on that. He spent three years following the Master all over the Holy Land and shared the hostility Jesus faced. He promised that he was ready to follow him to prison and to death — and he meant it. He even displayed a certain clumsy natural bravery in pulling out a sword and lopping off the ear of the High Priest’s slave (you try doing that when you are surrounded by a cohort of soldiers). So Peter did have real natural fortitude.

But then, as we know, it all came unglued. He did not have the fortitude to face this mysterious and baffling death wish Jesus seemed to be indulging. He fell apart and denied Jesus three times. He had the natural virtue of fortitude, but not the supernatural gift of fortitude. He required grace to perfect nature. How did he find his nerve again? On that, more next time.

Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.

Follow the links for Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 and Part 6, Part 7 and Part 8.

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