Cover story -- Essay
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  July 14, 2006

Courage: Absence of fear or grace under pressure?


A century ago my father John Burghardt at age 19 left the small village of Padew in Austria-Hungary and sailed across the Atlantic from Hamburg on the Graf Waldersee never to see his parents again. A year later my mother, Marya Krupp, then 22 and a single woman from that same region of Austria-Hungary, traveled alone to Bremen where she boarded the Seydlitz and sailed to New York, only to be detained at Ellis Island. The concern? How would a single woman support herself in a foreign land? No doubt each of my parents needed courage. But why, some could ask, does a Jesuit priest need courage while living in a community where his basic needs of food and shelter are being met? I am not alone or trying to find a job or homeless or in danger of being called up to fight in Iraq. Yet I, like you -- clergy or laity -- need courage.

Several years ago I learned that I am afflicted with wet macular degeneration -- a case a Washington retina expert diagnosed as among the worst he had ever seen. Within 18 months I had no vision at all in my right eye, and the disease was progressing in my left eye. As I write, my “good” eye has 20/400 vision and with that only “good” eye I see through a haze that is increasing slowly but surely. I continue to read books and articles, but only with the aid of an uncommonly large, electronic magnifier -- a slow and sometimes torturous process. Add to this the probability that before long my “good” eye will enjoy only peripheral vision -- no reading ability whatsoever. On the face of it, a dim prospect for one whose professional and priestly life has been spent for half a century in theological research, in lecturing and preaching on real-life issues of justice, publishing 24 books and more than 325 articles. At 92 my mind is still clear, even as memory all too often plays me false on facts and faces. But a clear mind without eyes to see? And hearing loss to boot?

A dim prospect? Only if I cling immovably to the gifts that molded my past; only if my days are consumed in constant carping over a paradise lost. My personal example can be multiplied. Each man, each woman, each child experiences situations wherein today is torture and tomorrow is at best unclear.

With this as background and context, I should like to dwell on three questions that are highly important for courageous living: What demands courage? What important aspect of spirituality can help us grow in courage? How apply this aspect of spirituality to our day-to-day living?

* * *

As the years move on, we take for granted our senses, our minds, and our love for others. Take our sense life. Am I afraid that although the sun will surely rise again tomorrow, I myself will never again be able to see it rise? Do you continue to marvel when your ears recapture a motet of Mozart, yet fear ending up deaf like Beethoven but without his genius to continue creating music; or perhaps, even more fearful, do you wonder how you will take care of a baby if you cannot hear the little one cry out for your help? Are you afraid your sense of smell is so age-worn that you can no longer savor the fragrance of a rose -- even scarier, does fear flame up in you at the thought of your house igniting while you sleep and your not smelling the smoke in time to flee to safety?

Move now from sense experience to human intelligence. A set of similar questions. Does my fear of controversy keep me from speaking out to make a difference even as an individual about the concerns of those in Southeast Asia ripped apart by tsunamis to those in the Southeastern United States not so long ago buried under surge waters of Hurricane Katrina? Do I have the courage to take an unpopular stand publicly against the controversial proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico? Do I have the courage to carry simply but prominently a placard to bear witness to corruption in government, in business, in church, in school, in the environment?

Are we afraid to love? To love as Jesus loved -- unselfishly -- to love even when love is not returned? Dare we take chances to love the unlovable -- the crook, the crafty, the corporate criminal? Do we fear those of other colors or creeds? Are we afraid not only of the AIDS patient we refuse to believe is not contagious but also do we fear dear friends with cancer who may soon die and leave us with dreams unfulfilled?

These and myriad other problems confront humans from day to day and often compel us to yearn for tomorrow.

* * *

What outlook on life, what aspect of spirituality may help us grow in courage even amid predicaments unforeseen and uncontrollable? A three-word precept: Live this day. As a well-known Sanskrit poem, “Salutation of the Dawn,” put it, “Yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision.” Oh yes, the dream is important, for the past is inescapably part and parcel of our lives; and the vision is fortunately our hope for the future. And still it remains true, today is the only day any of us can actually live. Only today, only at this moment, are we living.

Today we love and pray for others. A tough, all but impossible attitude for a mother mourning a ravished child, a man whose wife is losing mobility to multiple sclerosis, a woman whose spouse is paralyzed in a diving accident. Living this day is rarely simple; it is often an elusive goal.

In some situations such an outlook is frequently beyond our human powers. My own struggle to live this day with incurable macular degeneration has led me to St. Paul’s advice: “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the church” (Col 1:24). Sheer suffering, whether my own vision loss or St. Paul’s affliction, is not something to be enjoyed; but it can and should be offered for those children of God in need of divine compassion. The pain may remain, but we are likely to experience a peace God alone can provide.

In fact, St. Paul’s “solution” might well apply to many another, if less physical, agony: disappointment in love, lack of response in a counseling session, a dry spell in communion with God, a bruising criticism justified or not, an editor’s rejection of a cherished article. Not easily glossed over, not dismissed with a “Win one, lose one” shrug. We hurt, we cringe, we may even rage with anger. These moments we are most in need of being open to gifts of God over and above the purely natural -- what Christians call gifts of “grace,” some of the gifts St. Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” specifically “love, joy … patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith” (Gal 5:22-23). To adapt a phrase from Ernest Hemingway, “Courage is grace under pressure.”

* * *

How apply this aspect of spirituality to our day-to-day living? There is no felicitous formula, no single solution to cover all cases. “Live this day” is not a blueprint for endurance, for stolid passivity no matter how agonizing the pressure. It is not the questionable “Pour it on, Lord!” Some persons are generously gifted by nature to cope with adversity; others have to work harder and pray more steadfastly in the quest to live this day.

How am I myself adjusting to the real in my own life: to today’s low vision and tomorrow’s peripheral vision? Four years ago I began using the electronic magnifier. Now I continue my research with ZoomText, a magnifying and screen reading software program that both enlarges and reads aloud everything on the computer screen. Also aiding my typing is a keyboard with large keys arranged in an alphabetical rather than the traditional QWERTY layout (for white-haired Jesuits who never learned to touch-type). Yes, I typed this article myself several months after my 91st birthday.

Sooner or later, my eyesight will change yet again. I know not when; I know not precisely how. Clad in uncertainty, how live I this spirituality? Fortunately I live each day in an era of changing technologies that are producing devices to help me adapt to a growing world even as my eyesight is shrinking. Keenly I am aware that although I am losing my eyesight, I am not losing my vision. That distinction strengthens my spirituality, increases my insights, and redoubles my resolve to live this day.

Some ask how I live with these life-altering changes in my vision and in my hearing. Yes, these seemed “bad” enough until cancer invaded my colon, melanoma nestled itself in my left shoulder, and basal cell carcinoma found the right side of my nose a comfortable cushion. I try to follow my own advice “Live this day,” albeit the only thing harder than commanding a physician to heal herself is persuading a preacher to heed the counsel of his own homilies!

There must be times, will be times, when you, too, are afraid -- afraid to love, afraid to give or forgive, afraid to cry out against injustice, afraid to face an incurable illness. Recognize a basic reality: Courage is not the absence of fear. It is feeling afraid to do something but finding the strength to do it. For courage, reach. Reach into your deepest self and dare to discover the surprise found by a woman living with cancer: “The more courage I used to get through the day, the more courage I had. The more I embraced life -- relationships, nature and the joys of every day -- the richer my life became.”

Theologian Walter J. Burghardt celebrates his 75th anniversary as a Jesuit this year. A prolific writer, he focused his early work on the ancient Christian writers. Then followed more than four decades as editor of Theological Studies. At age 78, Fr. Burghardt recognized the need for greater emphasis on biblical justice, which has become the heart of most of his work in recent years.

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: