In the film Jeremiah Johnson, a veteran of the Mexican-American War decides to begin his life anew on the American frontier, braving the elements as a real mountain man. What’s interesting is that in many ways his story parallels that of St. Antony of the Desert, the fourth-century founder of monasticism.
Things don’t begin easily for Jeremiah Johnson. This ex-soldier’s first season of trapping and hunting yields meager results, and his first winter in the wilderness finds him without stable shelter or sufficient clothing. Running low on food, Jeremiah Johnson encounters an elder woodsman who teaches him how to hunt and trap. Over the years Jeremiah masters these arts, trapping game ranging from deer to grizzly bears. Having settled on a piece of land in one area of the mountains, he accidentally encroaches on the territory of Apache and Crow natives, and is soon engaged in a constant struggle with the Indian warriors over land and hunting rights. Through these tribulations, it is his drive to survive and his ability to withstand any of the obstacles that sustains him. His fortitude was no occasional exercise, but rather a consistent part of his character.
When we use the word courage or fortitude today, what we usually mean is a form of strength deployed when fighting against imposing obstacles. The fortitude of Jeremiah, for example, finds expression in his desire to survive against the threats of beasts and warrior natives who endanger his life.
Self-preservation, however, is not the best way to define fortitude. Fortitude does indeed involve enduring obstacles, yet it also includes some positive object to be obtained over and beyond this endurance. It is not just fighting against something, but fighting for something. The Catechism states that fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of good (CCC, 1808). Fortitude of the soul binds our will firmly to the goods of reason in the face of great evils. It enables us to conquer even the fear of death, so that we can renounce or sacrifice our lives for the sake of a just or higher cause.
St. Antony of the Desert is an exemplar of this true fortitude. Although he wasn’t killed as a martyr, St. Antony endured innumerable trials throughout his life for the sake of receiving the ultimate good of the kingdom of heaven. Selling his possessions at age twenty, he set out for the Egyptian desert to live as a hermit. The life St. Antony chose was not easy: battered from the attacks of harsh climate, hunger, and demonic visitors, he withstood his natural and supernatural foes to the very end of his life. St. Antony relied not merely on his own resolve as the source of his fortitude, but always prayed and worked that his will and intent be perfected by grace and that his life be an imitation of Christ’s life on earth.
Jeremiah Johnson may have shot bears and grappled Apache warriors, but St. Antony could say to his demonic foes: “If any of you have authority over me, then let it be so; otherwise why come in such great numbers when one is sufficient to fight me?” Known as the father of monks and one of the greatest desert fathers, St. Antony can rightly say with St. Paul:
As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left . . . We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:4-10)
From this perspective the Christian life appears a daunting task with a seemingly far-away goal in heaven. Our Lord warned us of the trials we would face in this life; anyone who thinks this life is easy needs to re-count the cost. But our fortitude, like our hope, is not grounded solely in our own efforts. Christ, who has won the victory over sin and death, offers us the grace to persevere and withstand any evils that we may face.
St. Thomas says that the courageous man delights in the good he will possess even as he knows this means facing various trials. Through the virtue of fortitude elevated by grace, modeled for us by St. Antony, let us take delight in the victory that comes from Christ’s cross and, by grace, belongs to us:
In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have conquered the world. (Jn 16:33)
Image: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Japanese War in Kagoshima