Once when Antony was living in the desert his soul was troubled by boredom and irritation. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be made whole and my thoughts do not let me. What am I to do about this trouble, how shall I be cured?’ After a while he got up and went outside. He saw someone like himself sitting down and working, then standing up to pray; then sitting down again to make a plait of palm leaves, and standing up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct Antony and make him vigilant. He heard the voice of the angel saying, ‘Do this and you will be cured.’ When he heard it he was very glad and recovered his confidence. He did what the angel had done, and found the salvation that he was seeking.
That story, along with others, celebrates the virtue of fortitude. Fortitude was among “the natural virtues” taught by the church. Its rather more contemporary synonym is resilience. The capacity to do what needs to be done, whatever the challenges.
In the Stoic tradition, resilience was the engine of deliverance. The words of Seneca, a Roman philosopher are illustrative:
For by looking forward to everything which can happen as though it would happen to him, he takes the sting out of all evils, which can make no difference to those who expect it and are prepared to meet it: evil only comes hard upon those who have lived without giving it a thought and whose attention has been exclusively directed to happiness. Disease, captivity, disaster, conflagration, are none of them unexpected: I always knew with what disorderly company Nature had associated me.
Seneca, Of Peace of Mind, XI
In the Christian tradition fortitude or resilience are about availability to the purposes of God. Or as Tissier de Mallerais puts it, the purpose of fortitude, as a gift of the Holy Spirit is “to dominate fear in order to accomplish the difficult good.”
So, how might one describe the experience of resilience? As the story of Anthony suggests, cultivating fortitude is often a domesticated effort. It is often boring and mundane. There is rarely much romance entailed. Identifying tasks and attending to them can be the spiritual discipline that nurtures resilience, and there are times when the tasks themselves may not have anything to do with the immediate threat that we face.
The deeply buried truth here is that when we lack resilience, we run ahead of God, in an effort to eliminate the source of our anxiety. That is not always possible and often the causes of anxiety are inherent in the effort to be faithful. Resilient people learn to live with that anxiety and attention to tasks and their performance – even mundane, unrelated tasks – leaves a place for God to act or – if need be – come to our assistance in places where anxiety is unlikely to abate. The life of Jesus, from its beginning to its end, illustrates this last point.
Resilience also entails setting aside the lust for relevance and the passion for being at the center of life’s drama. Resilient disciples are capable of setting aside petty obsessions. They sit comfortably with depravation. They can register fear, but they are not hobbled or controlled by it. People who fail to cultivate fortitude often place themselves in dramas of their own making and then focus on the desire to be delivered. They are, in that respect, a burden on God, rather than a companion.
Now, more than ever, the church needs resilient leaders. We spent the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries feeding on stories of leadership that was confident and aggressive, but that vision often thrived in a world of possibilities. Ironically, at the same time a growing number of seminarians entered school looking for accommodations. Some of those requests were legitimate. Others betrayed fragility and an inability to struggle and grow.
Covid-19 tested the luxury that the church in North America enjoyed. In the strange compartmentalization that is so characteristic of our world, we failed to acknowledge how hard life is and can be. We ignored the struggles of communities and churches in our own cities. We sublimated the perils that the church faces on a daily basis around the world.
As is so often the case, that testing has revealed weaknesses in our spiritual lives and practice. And we have also discovered the importance of the time-tested virtues that the church once cultivated. There are others worth discussing, but the resilience that Anthony sought is among the most important.