[Abba Piamun said:] Our Lord and Saviour taught a parable about two houses, one founded on a rock and the other on sand. On both houses fell the rain and the floods and the storms. But the one built on the rock sustained the violence unharmed: the one built on the shifting sand straightway collapsed. It is obvious that it did not collapse because the rains and the floods beat upon it, but because it had been built foolishly on sand. The saint does not differ from the sinner in not being tempted so strongly. The saint is not conquered by a great onslaught, the sinner falls to a trivial temptation. As I said, we should not praise the courage of a man who had won a fight without opposition. No conflict with an enemy—no victory.
~ Conferences of Cassian 18.13
Of the four classic cardinal virtues, perhaps one of the most peculiar is courage or fortitude, as it is variously translated. Furthermore, it is strange, in general, that those four (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) should be the four cardinal virtues and not others. What about, for example, compassion or honesty or humility? Nevertheless, the more I have contemplated them (which is not as often as I should), the more I have come to see that these four really do tend to play a fundamental role. Compassion takes courage. Honesty is ultimately an expression of justice. One cannot be humble without temperance. I am not so sure that one cannot start elsewhere, but it does not hurt to begin with these four. This story from the Conferences of St. John Cassian is ultimately about courage, or fortitude.
According to G. K. Chesterton, “Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point—and does not break.” Chesterton may be overstating his case here, but I think he still makes a good point, and I find that his definition of “the only courage worth calling courage” rings true in a wonderful way. Before encountering Chesterton’s definition, I think that I always had a knight of valor like St. George in my mind every time I heard the word “courage.” Certainly slaying dragons and rescuing princesses require courage, but that is only one expression of it. At the end of the day, fortitude may be closer to the mark. It is not so much a motivating desire to attempt a dangerous task as it is the ability to endure all things (which does include, of course, all the challenges of any valiant adventure). It is when “the soul passes a breaking point—and does not break.”
In light of this, let us return to the parable that Abba Piamun (=Poemen?) mentioned, the tale of the two houses:
Therefore whoever hears these sayings of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.
But everyone who hears these sayings of mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall. (Matthew 7:24-27)
The difference between the two houses, as Abba Piamun points out, is not that one endured a storm while one did not. “It is obvious that it did not collapse because the rains and the floods beat upon it, but because it had been built foolishly on sand.” And so too “[t]he saint does not differ from the sinner in not being tempted so strongly.” Indeed, the saint can endure all things—the saint has true courage—while the foolish person “falls to a trivial temptation.” According to Abba Piamun, “we should not praise the courage of a man who had won a fight without opposition”—such “courage” is not worthy of the name. Rather, the courageous person “passes a breaking point—and does not break,” being “founded on the rock” of the sayings of Jesus Christ.
So who, then, is the courageous person? This is what I like about a more traditional understanding of courage. Courage includes, of course, acts of valor like the story of St. George and the dragon (certainly a wonderful image of courage, if nothing else). However, it also includes, just as much if not more so, the person for whom just getting up in the morning or out the front door is a constant struggle. It includes the person who says yes to another date, even when prospects of finding a spouse seem hopeless. For that matter, it includes the person who says no to a date, determined not to let whether or not he/she is married be the sole determinant of his/her self-worth. It includes people who give their families yet another chance after years of disappointment, and it includes people who finally are able to say, “Enough!” It includes everyone whose “soul passes a breaking point—and does not break,” everyone who faces temptation and adversity and yet does not fall.
The person who is free from temptation and trial cannot truly be courageous or, moreover, victorious. “No conflict with an enemy—no victory.” But conversely, for those for whom the sayings of Jesus Christ form a strong foundation, for whom true treasure consists in heavenly virtue, every conflict is a potential victory for the one who has true fortitude, “the only courage worth calling courage.” And what dragon, what storm—whether fear or grief or desire or pleasure—cannot but fail when it encounters the strength of the one who stands firm in fortitude upon the rock of Jesus Christ?