Having lived through what has surely been the strangest and possibly most unpleasant twelve months that we in England have faced in its collective life for many decades, I am hoping and praying that the crisis that we have all been living with is now winding down and will soon be behind us. As Lent gathers pace and the joy of the Easter season – and indeed the sunshine and warmth of Spring – approach, one cannot help but allow hope to rise in one’s heart and to imagine a world in which we are not so restricted and bound by unnatural limitations.
But, when I reflect upon the events of the last twelve months, I am struck by what they have revealed to us about our psychological, emotional and spiritual predispositions.
For me, one of the most salient themes that has permeated this time has been that of fear and anxiety. Rightly or wrongly, the government has put a lot of effort into a media campaign that has been designed to make people afraid. Perhaps that fear is well-placed; perhaps not. Perhaps, given the circumstances, it was a lesser evil to scare people into behaviour that would preserve their physical health; perhaps it was not. It is not my purpose to say.
But what has been lacking, in my view, is any real talk of what it means to live a well-rounded, virtuous life. And in particular what I think has been lacking is any talk of the virtue of courage or fortitude. This may be understating the case actually, because it seems to me that our culture, far from celebrating this virtue, actually has inverted it and now celebrates the vice of timidity and cowardice.
As Christians we must look to the riches of our tradition to correct this mistake. Consider the biblical injunction of Psalm 27:12, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!” Or consider the attitude of St Paul, who, when he sat chained in prison awaiting a violent death at the hands of evil men, wrote to the Philippians, “It is my eager expectation and hope that…with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20).
Thomas Aquinas writes that, after prudence and justice, fortitude or courage is the highest virtue because “fear of dangers of death has the greatest power to make man recede from the good of reason” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 123, Art.12). In other words, fortitude or courage is necessary because the opposing vice, timidity, is an obstacle that stops us from doing the good that we ought through fear of the consequences, whether those consequences be death or something else. This is why the cultivation of courage is so important and the cultivation of the opposing vice, cowardice, so dangerous. Indeed as Aristotle says so clearly, this is analogous to the physical training of the body: we grow strong through exercise and nourishment and that strength leads us to greater levels of physical endeavour. Similarly, “it is by habituating ourselves to make light of alarming situations and to face them that we become brave, and it is when we have become brave that we shall be most able to face an alarming situation” (Aristotle, Ethics, Book Two, II, iii.). Or, in the words of a character in a show I’ve been watching a bit recently, The Last Kingdom, “To have courage, you must overcome your fear. Nothing more.”
As Christians, we have a hope that has gone beyond death and returned to us with happy tidings. Before he faced that awful end with such courage, he exhorted his disciples, “Peace I leave you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
One of the best gifts that we can give to a world which has lost its peace and is wracked in the vice of fear is the hope, the comfort and the demonstration of courage in the face of danger and death which is given to us through Jesus Christ.