Concerning Strength and Weakness

At first blush, it may appear vain or proud for a Catholic to desire “strength.” After all, the Apostle tells us that, “the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong” (I Cor. 1:27b). Strong people often dominate others; they are often, in fact, bullies. Also lending credibility to this first-blush appearance is the milieu in which we live, wherein public discourse is framed according to the deliberately misleading criteria of cultural-Marxist power struggles and intersectional victim status. Christian humility and meekness have accordingly become confused concepts in many minds, and such confusion is bound to derogate from an authentic Catholic understanding of the categories “weak” and “strong.”

Holy Scripture, the liturgical prayers of the Church, and the private devotional literature of the saints show us that strength is a good thing.

King David admonishes us: “Do ye manfully, and let your heart be strengthened, all ye that hope in the Lord” (Ps. 30:251; cf. also Is. 30:15).

The collect for the feast of Saint Josaphat, Bishop and Martyr, prays that by the power of the Holy Ghost, we may be moti ac roboráti2 — moved and strengthened — so that we will not fear to lay down our lives for our brethren.

Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, the humble and persecuted Capuchin friar who bore the wounds of Christ, offered this as the closing petition of a prayer he composed: “Give me the strength to fight and to obtain the prize due to strong souls.”

Evidently, strength is not a bad thing to ask of God.

Going back to the oration for Saint Josaphat, the particular word it employs for “strengthened,” roboráti, is worthy of some study. It is a perfect passive participle of the verb rōborāre, which comes from the noun rōbur, which, in turn, designates a specific kind of oak tree (as distinguished from the quercus, and the aesculus). The rōbur is a particular oak of reddish tint, hence the affinity of its Latin name to the word for red, ruber. We get our English word, robust, from this constellation of Latin words.

A couple of years ago, our community received a donation of beautiful tree trunks from a generous lumberjack for winter fuel in our priory and convent wood stoves. The Brothers had to cut them into rounds with a chainsaw, split them, and stack the final product at the two houses. At the time, I decided that the particular kind of exercise I was getting — lifting weights — might be good for me, but it made no contribution to the community. Now, as one who sits at a desk or teaches all day, I need some form of physical exercise, so I switched to chopping wood. To come to the point, I have no idea whether the species of reddish-tinted oak trees that were included in that donation is related to the rōbur that inspired in the Romans an ideal of strength. If it is, I quite understand the connection. These logs were a real test for the maul, axes, and other tools I was using: a nice wedge someone gave me was snapped in twain, rendered useless. As for my back, I can limit myself to saying that it was apparently not as robust as its wooden foe, though it fared better than the wedge.

As I was pondering the subject of strength recently, I happened upon an apt passage on it in one of my favorite spiritual books. In context, the author is speaking of the unity that is brought to the spiritual life by our pursuit of its first principle — which is also the first principle of our creation: giving glory to God and pursuing our own happiness by knowing, loving, and seeking Him in all things. This is called piety. Opposed to it is the seeking of my own selfish satisfaction, which causes disunity, division, and dissipation. This causes my powers and energies to be scattered among all the myriad objects of my disordered vision, love, and seeking.

The fairest fruit of unity is strength. The great source of interior weakness is disturbance and division. Every kingdom divided against itself shall be brought to desolation (Luke iii. 17). The soul which is dispersed and divided amidst the thousand anxieties of the senses consumes its powers in detail and wastes them. But when these are concentrated in unity and in God, what strength do they possess! Seek ye the Lord, and be strengthened: seek His face evermore (Ps. civ. 4). Seek ye God, and your soul shall live (Ps. lxviii. 33). Thus saith the Lord to the house of Israel: seek ye Me, and ye shall live (Amos v. 4).

No power is comparable to that of a soul unified in the vision, love, and seeking of God. First of all, I get the initial strength that comes from the very gathering together of all the powers of my being. Who can measure the power of one, all of whose faculties are entirely united in the same effort? When the intelligence, the will, the passions and powers of the body are concentrated and as it were compressed together upon the same object, no earthly might is comparable to it. And when this strength is reinforced by God’s, for in concentrating himself in God man acquires God’s strength, how can we be astounded at the prodigious sway exercised by the saints? How can we be astounded at the potency of their prayer and at the might of their action? O my God! when shall I thus be wholly united in Thee, so as to be strong by Thee? … I will keep my strength to Thee (Ps. lviii. 10); and Thou, O God, who art wonderful in Thy saints, Thou the God of Israel art He who will give me Thy power and strength (Ps. lxvii. 36). [Dom François de Sales Pollien (1853-1936), The Interior Life Simplified and Reduced to Its Fundamental Principle, pg. 97]

“Jerusalem, which is built as a city, which is compact together” (Ps. 121:3). These words of the Psalmist, often applied to the Church, came to mind when I read the above words of the devout Carthusian.

As Dom François de Sales implies, any true notion of individual “strength” in the spiritual life must include the essential and prior role of divine grace to avoid theoretical and practical Pelagianism, just as it must include our obligation to act virtuously so as to avoid Quietism.

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Speaking very practically, an awareness of what strengthens and weakens us is of invaluable assistance in pursuing that essential pillar of piety, self knowledge. Here I have a suggestion. It is prayerfully to jot down a two-part list with the headings, “What Strengthens Me” and “What Weakens Me.” It may take some days of writing, erasing, putting it down then returning to it, etc., until you have a satisfactory list. In such matters, what is worth doing is worth doing slowly and well. It may be difficult to write. Be brave! Be honest! After the list is assimilated, it can be used as a reference in making concrete resolutions to do what strengthens you and to avoid what weakens you. For many, being without a concrete resolution at the beginning of the day to do or avoid certain things, is like being rudderless in the pursuit of virtue.

The lists you generate might profitably be shared with a spiritual director or confessor as an aid in getting good counsel and prudently making salutary resolutions.

It is well to bear in mind, however, that sometimes, God deliberately puts us in situations where we encounter our weakness very painfully — whether this concerns discouragement over our past sins, despondency over our present progress, or our fears about the future. In such situations, we have to make acts of faith, hope, charity, humility, and abandonment to God’s holy will, recalling the very ironic lesson that Saint Paul learned from Our Lord Himself:

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. [2 Cor. 12:7-10]

Let us glory in our weakness, knowing that we thereby become strong in Christ.

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1. Viriliter agite, et confortetur cor vestrum, omnes qui speratis in Domino.

2. Here is the whole prayer: Excita, quǽsumus, Dómine, in Ecclésia tua Spíritum, quo replétus beátus Iósaphat Martyr et Póntifex tuus ánimam suam pro óvibus pósuit: ut, eo intercedénte, nos quoque eódem Spíritu moti ac roboráti, ánimam nostram pro frátribus pónere non vereámur. In English: “Stir up in thy Church, we beseech thee, O Lord, that Spirit which so filled blessed Josaphat, thy Martyr and Bishop, that he laid down his life for his flock; that by his intercession we, being likewise animated and strengthened by that same Spirit, may not fear to lay down our lives for our brethren.”