When Courage May Be But An Ordinary Virtue
Most of us think of courage as a display of amazing or extraordinary action in times of great necessity, difficulty, or stress. We think first of courageous soldiers and sailors and air force personnel, especially during wartime. Without in any way gainsaying such heroic acts of courage, and with no wish to diminish them, most of us know that there is a less public and heroic pathway that we are asked to tread throughout life. I suggest that this pathway has three parts.
The first is commitment. It takes a lot of guts to remain in a relationship. Any relationship, that is. There are no perfect relationships in this world, and we disclose our naïve belief in fable and fairy tale when we think there are.
With age I realize how difficult is this passage in scripture: “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life.” We want to grab that crown of life but we don’t want to hear the first part of the sentence, the part about “unto death.” It takes real courage to remain through thick and thin. The ancient marriage vows make this crystal clear: “for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forth until death do us part.”
The desert fathers used to entertain young novices who would come out to the desolate places to join the monastic life. Often within weeks, perhaps even days, they would complain and whine that they could not find God where they thought they would. The sages would simply smile and reply, “Go back to your cell. If you cannot find God there you cannot find him anywhere.” There is no substitute for stability.
A second part of courage is compassion. It is not easy to remain compassionate in our age. Check it out online and you’ll find many web sites that speak about “compassion fatigue.” We are weary of being dunned by this e-mail and that snail mail. Literally hundreds of solicitations come to your mailbox each year. You simply become immune to them and walled off from them. No one person can possibly respond to all these calls, many of them quite legitimate. The mind cannot comprehend the weight of human suffering that exists and so we shut down. I submit that courage is found in not shutting down, but rather in choosing judiciously those causes you will support and sticking with them as you do with other commitments.
St John Chrysostom preached that it is not enough to hear gospel words that encourage us to compassion. They remain useless unless we act on them.
Third, courage involves community. This is a a significant move beyond the singularity that marks much American life. Old friend and mentor Henri Nouwen visited the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto occasionally and wrote his experiences. Henri was later challenged no longer to write about but to become part of the community. He did so, and remained there the rest of his life, an integral part of that extraordinary place where so-called disabled people live with so-called normal people. About this Henri said: “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
Ordinary courage, indeed, is not only called for but is exhibited day in and day out by millions of unsung people, without whom the world would not only be a worse place but would not run at all. God bless the ordinarily courageous.
published 7 December 2012