Many of us are familiar with the story Dead Man Walking. It’s about a Catholic nun, Helen Prejean, who is working among prisoners on death row, helping prepare them for death.
Her work isn’t easy. There is opposition on every front. She has to challenge the prisoner facing death to own up to what he has done, to forgive society and himself, and to die without bitterness.
And she needs to do this in the face of near-universal misunderstanding. The prisoners themselves initially suspect her intent, the victims’ families cannot accept that she is trying to help the killer of their loved ones, the existing chaplains do not want her, the people she used to work with cannot understand how she can abandon them for this, many look upon her as an adolescent do-gooder, and many within society hate her simply for her stand against capital punishment.
Save for a few friends, she is unanimity-minus-one.
Despite this all, she sustains herself, but there is a cost, constant strain and an unspeakable loneliness. At one point, standing in the warden’s office, she collapses – from tiredness, exasperation, an untreated flu and a coldness that results not just from poor heating in a building but, at a deeper level, from the chill that issues out of the calculated coldness of capital punishment. She recovers, perseveres and continues to walk by her own principles and spirit.
Among other things, this story illustrates what one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, fortitude, looks like when we see it in real life.
What is the gift of fortitude? Biblically, fortitude is the gift of the Holy Spirit that is given to us that we might have the courage to defend our communities, the poor, our faith and the truths of God by which we live.
Biblically, we defend these through prophecy – and prophecy requires courage. Fortitude, in essence, is courage for prophecy.
Rather than attempting to define fortitude abstractly, I would like, here, to give a picture of it, by looking at how we see it lived out in the actual lives of some prophetic persons.
Who are the prophets of our time and how do they illustrate fortitude? We have already seen the case of Sister Helen Prejean. Let us look at some others:
Dorothy Day was a picture of fortitude. She called her autobiography The Long Loneliness and that pretty well describes what fortitude demanded of her. She kept to her principles, to non-violently serve God and the poor, even when this meant losing a relationship she had to a man she deeply loved, the father of her child; even when it meant risking the love and support of the very community who had joined her cause, as happened several times in her building of the Catholic Worker; and even when it meant arrest, ridicule, loss of her former friends and unspeakable loneliness. That is fortitude.
Henri Nouwen is another example of prophetic fortitude. He never wrote a formal autobiography with loneliness in its title, but, like Dorothy Day, he lived that loneliness. He was a man of tortured complexity, but also a man of real faith.
He believed in the reality of God, the unfathomable compassion of Jesus and the transformation this would bring into our lives if we ever gave ourselves over to it. He lived that and tried to share it with others, especially the poor – he left the academic world for them, used to re-write his books to try to make them simpler and openly shared his own brokenness with the whole world.
He did all this, even though it constantly brought him deep interior crisis and to the edges of emotional and physical breakdown. He was accused of neurosis, egoism, narcissism, ambition and of not having an unpublished thought, but he persevered and, like Kierkegaard, his early mentor, helped millions of people by sharing his own pain. That is prophetic courage, biblical fortitude.
Oscar Romero demonstrated fortitude when, instead of accepting the privilege and place among the powerful which the president of the country was offering him, he rightly accused the president of lying and betraying himself and the poor. He was shot for that, but he died knowing his death would ultimately bring about what his words could not, more justice for the poor.
Mother Teresa showed prophetic fortitude in the direct way she reached out to the poor and the direct way she lived the Gospel, in spite of all the accusations suggesting that she was too simplistic, naive, counter-productive to social justice, too pious and too blindly obedient to the church. She lived out her principles in spite of this and gave a concrete face to biblical fortitude.
It is never easy to live out what is truest within us, nor is it easy to defend what needs to be defended. Fortitude is always necessary and we might all do well to pray with Ignatius of Loyola: “Passion of Christ, strengthen me!”