In C. S. Lewis’ book “The Screwtape Letters,” the demon named Screwtape writes, “We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice.” The implication of this is that there is also at least one virtue men are always proud of, which is courage. Despite humanity’s positive outlook on courage, the devil detests it as much as any other virtue, but since we happen to like courage he has to take a circuitous route to defeat it. He does this by distracting us and confusing our image of it.
What is true courage? Society presents courage as something related to physical and mental power, which is desired by all, yet achieved by few. However, true courage and strength are often despised by the world. Until recently, I would have agreed with society, but I have learned that true courage comes from weakness, sacrifice and surrender, which can be achieved by anybody.
Many people make the mistake of associating weakness with cowardice, so they present it as something which should be ridiculed. In his book, “Heretics,” G.K. Chesterton contradicts this association saying, “The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave.” A heroic action by a strong person is not the same as a heroic action by a weak person. While the action may be the same, it takes a lot more courage for the weak to perform it than for the strong. Consider the character Achilles in Homer’s “Iliad.” Achilles was practically invincible. On the other hand, his opponent, Hector, knew that he was weaker than Achilles, but he fought to defend his home anyway. Which one had more courage?
One of the most profound examples of human weakness is St. Peter, who infamously gave in to fear, but Christ established his Church on this weak man, and the gates of hell have not prevailed against it.
Sacrifice is intimately associated with weakness because it is through sacrifice that we become weak. The greatest story of sacrifice is told every year on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The Word not only became flesh, but “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), and God was executed in the manner of the lowest of criminals.
Power itself became weakness, and now he calls us to strive for the same. How hard it is to sacrifice our powers and pleasures. Satan constantly tells us that we are strong if we have more earthly treasure, but it is much more difficult to relinquish that treasure than to gain it. Despite this difficulty we have been given a spirit of power and of love and of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7) with which we can sacrifice our earthly treasure for the glory of the Father.
In heroic tales from the dawn of storytelling, surrender has always been associated with cowardice. If we surrender to temptation and evil, it is cowardice because we have been given the grace to overcome it, but surrender to God is an entirely different matter.
In fact, God has called us to surrender to him in exactly the same way that he surrendered himself for us. Nothing less than complete, voluntary surrender will satisfy him because he knows that we will only be able to attain happiness in his care. Surrender to God takes immense courage. He wants our whole selves, which means that we are no longer in control of our lives. Mary made this total surrender at the Annunciation saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy Word” (Luke 1:38).
The Gospel tells us that “the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 20:16). Jesus calls us to be like little children because they rely completely on their parents for everything. By worldly standards they are the weakest members of society. If we are to become like them, we have to surrender our power and sacrifice our possessions, relying completely on our Father in heaven.
In “The Great Divorce” by C. S. Lewis, the narrator is exploring heaven, and he comes across a magnificent lady surrounded by a throng of joyous people and creatures, but on earth she was a nobody. Because she became like the poor man Lazarus on earth she was exalted in heaven. So, “screw your courage to the sticking place” (Macbeth 1.7.59-61), let the strength of the Holy Spirit flow through you, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Sam Stengel is a homeschooled senior. He attends St. Joseph Church in Paris.
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