Fortes in Fide

Every night, when the Brothers pray the traditional office of Compline together, we encounter the following words of Saint Peter (I Pet. 5:8):

Fratres: Sóbrii estóte, et vigiláte: quia adversárius vester diábolus tamquam leo rúgiens círcuit, quærens quem dévoret: cui resístite fortes in fide.
V. Tu autem, Dómine, miserére nobis.
R. Deo grátias.

In English:

Brothers: Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. Whom resist ye, strong in faith:
V. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us.
R. Thanks be to God.

Emboldened are the words I would like to focus on in this Ad Rem. Aside from their place in Holy Writ and in the Church’s Divine Office, they constitute the motto of our Congregation, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Faith is the initium salutis, “the beginning of human salvation” — not the middle, not the end. This doctrine comes to us from the Council of Trent, which cites Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe (468-533) as its source. Among the three theological virtues — and, indeed, within the supernatural life as a whole — faith is “first,” not chronologically or in any other respect “mathematically,” but first in that ontological sense in which all else that comes after is dependent upon it; without it, there simply is no supernatural life.

Fortitude is a moral virtue, and one of the four cardinal moral virtues. Its other names are “courage” and “bravery.” It exists in us as a power to restrain fear, which itself exists in us as a perfectly useful human passion, though we can allow fear to traumatize us as people are clearly being traumatized by all manner of false fears lately (concerning which, see Resist Fear Mongering Propaganda; What Do Hope, Fear, and Poverty Have in Common?; Fear, Holy and Unholy). On the other hand, without fear, we would endanger ourselves unnecessarily by doing foolhardy things. Like all the passions, fear is a potentially very good servant, but a poor master, and therefore needs to be directed according to reason. Subjecting fear to reason is precisely the function of fortitude — about which I wrote more elsewhere.

Fortitude, to be a genuinely Christian virtue, must rest firmly on the Rock of Christ. Otherwise, what we have will be a counterfeit of fortitude, a bravado or machismo founded upon the shifting sands of pride and disordered self-love. How then, can we guarantee that our fortitude rests firmly on the Rock of Christ? There are three powerful adhesives that firmly attach fortitude to that Rock and assure its strength: humility, abandonment, and confidence in God.

Concerning these, Saint Paul gives us a wonderful image in a much celebrated passage (II Cor. 12:7-10):

And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me. For which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me. And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful.

Father Challoner comments as follows on that passage:

The strength and power of God more perfectly shines forth in our weakness and infirmity; as the more weak we are of ourselves, the more illustrious is his grace in supporting us, and giving us the victory under all trials and conflicts.

See how the great Apostle recognizes his own smallness and dependence, and even glories in his infirmities as he abandons himself to God’s good pleasure with the full confidence that Christ’s power will dwell in him in the midst of those manifold threats, torments, betrayals, and life-threatening dangers he only partially narrated to the Corinthians in the preceding chapter. He will continue manifest this his humble, abandoned, and confident fortitude even unto martyrdom, thus maximally availing himself of the grace of Christ.

Christian fortitude is not remotely possible without the theological virtue of faith, and there are times when faith itself needs the moral virtue of fortitude to shield it from harm — as when that roaring lion seeks to devour us. These two great virtues support one another.

Concerning the virtue of faith, its truths admit of no negotiation, no compromise, and no attenuation. For this reason, faith has a paradoxical double aspect: In itself, it is a house of stone built upon a rock, but it can also be a house of cards, or, to use Christ’s own figure at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, a house built upon the sand.

How explain this paradox?

Objectively speaking, as it comes from God through the Church, the divine and catholic faith is an impregnable, enduring, unbreakable fortress of stone built upon solid rock. Subjectively speaking — that is, as that faith exists in each one of us as in its subject — it is assailable. It can be compromised, even destroyed. If we remove one stone from that sturdy edifice, it crumbles like a house of cards. By our own assent to superstition or heresy, or even our own deliberate doubt of just one revealed truth, we can mutilate what is divine into a merely human faith.

Here is Saint Thomas explaining how a heretic does not have “living faith” (that is, faith accompanied by hope, charity, and sanctifying grace), or even “lifeless faith” (faith without the last two of those things, i.e., the faith of an orthodox Catholic in mortal sin):

Neither living nor lifeless faith remains in a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith.

The reason of this is that the species of every habit depends on the formal aspect of the object, without which the species of the habit cannot remain. Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith. Even so, it is evident that a man whose mind holds a conclusion without knowing how it is proved, has not scientific knowledge, but merely an opinion about it. Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. Hence it is evident that a heretic who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith, is not prepared to follow the teaching of the Church in all things; but if he is not obstinate, he is no longer in heresy but only in error. Therefore it is clear that such a heretic with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.

We are all subject to doubts and to trials of our faith. Saint Peter, whose words began the present lines, writes elsewhere of “the trial of your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire)” (I Pet. 1:7). In fact, the great saints have their faith and other theological virtues tried a great deal as they become perfected in the interior life. (See, for instance what the great Père Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. says of the purification of faith.)

We must frequently renew this fundamental virtue by making interior acts of faith, by daily reciting the Credo, and by not permitting any doubt to undermine this necessary foundation to our spiritual edifice. But when our faith is assailed, let us be at peace. Only in peace can we have the proper internal atmosphere whereby the power of Christ can freely operate in us. If we are humble, abandoned, and confident, we will also be peaceful. Our faith will not evaporate for all that, but, rather, be strengthened. On the other hand, when we suffer from anxiety, depression, or disordered fear, we can lose our trust in the divine promises and subject ourselves to the undermining forces of the devil. (Which reminds me that the woodpecker, for its ability to undermine the structural integrity of a tree is a symbol of both heresy and the Devil — concerning which, see here, here, here, and, of course, here.)

Faith is the initium salutus, the beginning of human salvation, but not its end. Faith cleaves in this life to God as Truth. From there, we cleave by hope to God as our last Good, but that is not the highest virtue. The highest virtue is the one that cleaves to God as the Good to be loved in Himself, and that is charity, “the greatest of these” (I Cor. 13:13), which abides forever. Without faith, we cannot have charity; therefore, we cannot have God. Because of this, charity perfects what was begun by faith. Moreover, because “perfect charity casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18), charity also completes the work of fortitude.

The motto our founders chose for us from Saint Peter’s inspired exhortation, Fortes in Fide, speaks of the necessary foundations we all need to ascend to the sublime heights of the love of God. May all who read these words do so and thus become the saints that God desires us to be.