On our journey through “the valley of the shadow of death,” we desperately need endurance to fight for the good and to resist evil (Psalm 23). Life is not a sprint but a marathon. Christians understandably focus so much on restraining misdirected desires that, at times, we overlook the need to strengthen our spirits amid life’s challenges. Such strength, the tradition describes as courage. Toughness, resilience, grit, and steadiness—a.k.a. the virtue of courage—shape our feelings of sadness, anger, and fear. Rather than reacting impulsively or shutting down entirely, courageous attitudes give us the strength to respond to the obstacles and setbacks of this life.
Fears, anger, and sorrows all are myopic; that is, they give us tunnel vision so that we only see the threatening situation before us or what has been or might be lost. Courage places these feelings within their true perspective so we may feel our feelings, refine them, and perhaps use them to respond to the genuine challenge at hand. By not allowing difficulties to overwhelm us, courage helps us to remember that we are children of God. St. Paul reminds Timothy:
“For you did not receive a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power, love, and self-control.”2 Timothy 1:7
The Holy Spirit strengthens our spirit with renewed courage.
Recovering the virtue of courage will help us learn what Jesus wants to teach us through his famous Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Beatitude or blessedness here does not describe the happiness we feel when things go our way but the genuine and lasting satisfaction, happiness, and peace of a well-lived life. Jesus elsewhere describes himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Here, however, he breaks down the way that is himself into eight distinct steps we might follow. Just as pure white light breaks up into the distinct colors of the rainbow without losing any of its purity, so also Jesus breaks up his pure and perfect love into eight unique dispositions so that we might perceive them more fully. Each of these attitudes offers counter-cultural and counter-intuitive ways of coming to see and endure the world. John Paul II teaches that “the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Jesus Christ” (Veritatis Splendor). If the Beatitudes are Jesus helping us see his character and disposition, his way of being truly happy and blessed in this life and in the next, then it is worth our time to attend to these eight steps of courage.
Poverty of spirit describes our true state. We are powerless to achieve the goods that are dearest to our hearts. C. S. Lewis describes Christian faith as admitting the bankruptcy of all our efforts to live properly. Faith kicks in when we have tried and failed to live for God on our own. Augustine presents the eight Beatitudes as a ladder by which we can climb step-by-step to God. Unsurprisingly, he sees the first Beatitude as showing the need for humility.
Humility is not thinking that we are worthless but realizing that we cannot do those things most necessary to find genuine happiness in this life. On our own, we cannot love God more than ourselves, nor can we love ourselves or our neighbor properly. Furthermore, we cannot prevent our loved ones from suffering and ultimately dying, nor can we make others love or treat us as we wish. When we admit our own powerlessness, we discover that we are not helpless since we have the power to do the one thing necessary: turn to Christ in faith and surrender everything to him. Such surrender requires courage—perhaps, better, such surrender simply is courage—since life remains filled with grief, tears, joys, and hopes. It takes courage to let go of the illusion that we have everything in hand, admit our “poverty in spirit,” and believe that God can do what we cannot do for ourselves. In the courageous surrender of our egos, the kingdom of heaven, which is nothing other than Jesus Christ himself, becomes ours.
How could mourning accompany genuine happiness? Is not weeping the opposite of joy? Jesus suggests the answer by turning our attention to the promise of being comforted. Building upon the humility of the first beatitude, mourning admits something further. We are incapable of comforting ourselves. Much that we love in this world has been, is being, or will be taken from us. Consider our health, the health of our loved ones, or even the health of so many worldwide who lack basic necessities. So also, with wealth and earthly peace and security. So also, with proximity to our loved ones, the intimacies that perhaps we once enjoyed or longed to enjoy are now no longer possible due to death, estrangement, or even simply the busyness of modern life. It takes true courage to admit that I mourn, that I am vulnerable, that I am woundable. And yet it is only when we admit that we are both woundable and wounded that it becomes possible for us to be comforted and healed. Whenever speaking of our vulnerabilities and courage, the words of the prayer, the “Anima Christi,” come to mind, “within your wounds hide me,” “intra tua vulnera absconde me.” God became man in Christ, so he could be woundable—vulnerable—and so become our ultimate comfort.
“By his wounds, we are healed.”1 Peter 2; Isaiah 53
Courage mourns our losses and yet remembers Christ’s presence amidst our sorrows. In this way, courage begets hope that we shall be comforted.
Humility recognizes our powerlessness before God. Hope remembers that comfort shall come in Christ. Meekness, in turn, orients us to love our neighbor with gentleness, understanding, and encouragement. St. Josemaría Escrivá teaches that “charity is found not so much in giving, but in understanding.” Yet, meekness is not our typical attitude. Try the following experiment: observe our conversations and thoughts for twenty-four hours, or perhaps even for only twenty-four minutes, and notice the surplus of critical thoughts, sarcastic comments, resentments, and gossip. The fathers of the Church would describe this fallen attitude as one of envy: feeling better when others suffer and feeling worse when others thrive. This attitude of envy compares us against one another, presupposing that we are in competition for limited resources and limited human respect and even somehow an imaginary limitation on the love of God. We see ourselves on a ladder of worth, perhaps higher than or lower than most others. Either way, to find happiness, we must step off the ladder and join the circle of fellowship made possible by Jesus Christ (1 John 1). As promised in this beatitude, the earth describes that circle of fellowship, that part of creation renewed when we turn from the mutual accusation of the children of Adam and Eve and turn to the mutual understanding made possible in Christ and his Spirit.
If ours is an age of anxiety, it is also one of anger and frustration. Outrage and resentment are understandable in a world filled with injustice. Nonetheless, feelings of anger at injustice are prone to excess. Aquinas observes that anger moves easily to destructive rage since the very injustice deepens our sense that we are in the right. Anger thus easily blinds us. Yes, Jesus exhibited righteous anger, but how easily we use this as an excuse for our own exaggerated sense of righteousness! More than likely, we are not as virtuous as we think. Even more problematic is when anger over past hurts and disappointments deepens into resentments. Such resentments lead us to re-sense again and again the feelings of hurt, anger, and even hatred. This resentment is corrosive and ineffective since the object of the resentment is something in the past that cannot be changed. Courage brings anger into balance so that we do not cause undue harm to others and to ourselves. Courage helps us to practice acceptance of the past, shape our anger in the present, and focus on those things in which we may genuinely act—especially in the willingness to change ourselves—to see our own injustices and so ask God to forgive us and to take away our defects of character. Finally, courage remembers that there are many injustices that we simply cannot heal. Society may punish the perpetrator of a murder; only God can raise the dead. Happiness requires us to trust that God alone may finally satisfy our hunger and thirst for justice in the new heavens and the earth.
Mercy describes God’s innermost character in relation to creation. His love first communicates goodness to us in our very creation and restores it to those who have turned from the goodness for which they were created. Human reason, however, cannot discover God’s mercy without the help of Revelation. When God appears to Moses, he reveals his mercy;
“I am the Lord, merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love.”Exodus 34
In Isaiah, God teaches that, unlike human relations, he will be merciful to the sinner. He says about his forgiveness of sins,
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth are my ways above your ways.”Isaiah 55
In Acts, the preaching of the apostles is frequently summarized as the announcement of Christ’s death and Resurrection and that those who believe in him and receive his Spirit may have the forgiveness of sins. Some pains and resentments may only go away through forgiveness. Courage names the strength to forgive another person who has harmed us. Being merciful to others also allows us to be merciful to ourselves. We, too, have given into anger and fears and hurt others by failing to act one day and overreacting the next. Mercy describes the way out of our own shame. In the Bible, Satan is called “the accuser.” It is Jesus who sends us his Spirit, our advocate, to say, “shame off you.” When we courageously practice mercy, or at least admit our lack of mercy and ask God to be merciful to us, we open ourselves up to receiving God’s mercy.
This beatitude begins with an uncomfortable double truth: our hearts are not pure and we are, therefore, blind. The Gospels reinforce the theme of our blindness by repeatedly telling stories of Jesus’ miraculous healings of the blind. Specifically, we are blind to our own dignity, the dignity of others, and above all, the dignity and holiness of God. Instead, we see everything as a means to gratify our desires or to allay our fears. Such blindness is evident in our sexual desires, in which manipulation and objectification become the norm. We fail to see the image of God in the other person. It requires tremendous courage to redirect our misdirected patterns of satisfying sentimental and sensual desires, to own up to our unhealthy practices and thoughts, and to seek the Lord’s renewal and healing. As someone once said, “when you are in the picture, you can’t see the picture.” Blindness may arise from unhealthy relationships with food, alcohol, and mood-altering substances. When such desires are misdirected, it is often not out of a desire for pleasure but from a desire to numb the pain. Again, courage is needed to admit that life is indeed painful and hard and, yet, still worthwhile and good. Another blindness may arise from an overwhelming desire for material or financial security. Courage may be needed to recognize that life always remains risky and outside our control. Purity of heart requires courage to turn from our desire to find comfort and avoid pain amid creatures, and so to come to long for—and so to come to see—our Creator who alone can satisfy us with “pleasures forever more at your right hand” (Psalm 16).
Peacemaking turns from the cycle of revenge, gossip, and resentment to renewed relationships. However, the key to such renewal requires us to have walked through the prior six Beatitudes. Otherwise, our attempts to make peace would hardly be peaceful. In his great City of God, Augustine says that earthly peace—both civil and familial—is often not true peace but instead the counterfeit peace of pride. Such counterfeit peace is merely our attempt to impose our will and vision of peace upon everyone else. True peace flows only from the true Creator and his renewal of creation in Jesus Christ. The risen Christ’s first words to the apostles in the upper room were:
“Peace be with you … Peace be with you.”John 20
Facilitating peace requires the courage to let go of our own attempts to control others and restore their freedom and dignity to them, even if this includes the freedom to fail. With courage, we develop healthy boundaries. As described by Aristotle, courage is not only the willingness to fall in battle but also the willingness to let others fall in life. The courage to let Christ’s peace be received—or to be rejected—is, in fact, to become children of God since God gives human creatures that same freedom.
All suffering is hard. Some suffering is frankly unbearable. Our lives, at times, are simply shattered by certain griefs and losses when the unimaginable becomes real. Some suffering, moreover, is inflicted upon Christians because they confess that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12). Other hardships and persecutions may well come from our imperfections and defects in our attempts to communicate the Good News. The beautiful thing about Jesus redeeming our suffering is that all our suffering—whether our fault or not, whether due to our faith or not—may always be received and offered to him. As Paul so powerfully teaches:
“In all things God works for good for those who love him.”Romans 8
But some suffering and persecution is simply because Christ has unmasked the powers of this world as imposters. In every century since Christ’s own death, worldly powers, whether global, national, or familial, recognize that Christians destabilize their illegitimate claim to absolute authority and total control. Such persecutions require the ultimate test of courage, no longer the willingness to fall in battle but to fall in witness to Christ. The martyrs are the new heroes. Who knows how we might respond when faced with such persecutions, but we may affirm that fidelity to Christ is the path to true blessedness. This beatitude teaches that we need never suffer alone or in vain. Jesus Christ suffers with us. One thing we know, however, is that any fidelity is never ours alone but is rather received from the Holy Spirit and takes root in us through these eight attitudes of courage. To be persecuted for the sake of his name is to possess the kingdom of heaven, which accepts suffering in this life and embraces glory in the next.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus presents us with eight steps of letting his attitudes take root in us. Each of the Beatitudes recommends a path of surrendering our passions and our will, our very lives, into God’s hands. By practicing these courageous attitudes, we cease reacting to the world in fear, anger, and sadness. On the contrary, we respond to these feelings in accord with the whole of reality manifested by Jesus Christ. Through these steps, we begin to live lives of greater courage, always remembering that we discover our courage by admitting our failings and our own powerlessness to fix ourselves and those we love most. In these ways, we have the opportunity to recover the Beatitudes as steps of courage, the steps of Jesus Christ completely trusting in his Father. As Jesus spoke to his disciples in the upper room when promising the gift of his Spirit, “in the world you will have trouble, but be of good courage for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
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Michael Dauphinais, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of Theology at Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, Florida. He hosts the Catholic Theology Show podcast, and is an established author, co-authoring Knowing the Love of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Holy People and Holy Land: A Theological Introduction to the Bible with Matthew Levering. Michael and his wife Nancy have been blessed with almost 30 years of marriage and have three adult sons.