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Courage: Thought for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

We already considered intercessions for today, based largely on the epistle:

Ephesians 6.10-20

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil… Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…

But what does putting on the whole armour of God actually mean? Splendid metaphor and all that, but it is not as easy as it sounds. I think we are really talking about courage, and God’s help in being brave in facing whatever may come. After all,
The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? Psalm 27

We are told that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of fear, as Gerard Manley Hopkins so vividly described:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No lingering!
Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep

It’s no accident that fear and courage are among the main themes of the stories we read as children. Dealing with fear – and some of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were pretty terrifying – is one of the most important lessons of childhood.

But, as John Bunyan knew, fear can be ever-present:
Timorous answered, that they…had got up that difficult place: but, said he, the further we go, the more danger we meet with; wherefore we turned, and are going back again. ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’

Timorous needed an introduction to ‘The Little Engine That Could‘:
A long train needed to be pulled over a high mountain. Various larger engines, treated anthropomorphically, are asked to pull the train; for various reasons they in turn refuse. Finally, a small and insignificant engine offers to have a go; the other engines mock it for trying. But by chugging on with its motto I think I can, I think I can, the engine succeeds where the others had failed and sails down the other side singing I thought I could, I thought I could.

Some try Dutch courage, attempting to keep their spirits up by pouring spirits down, but this kind of courage is liable to wear off at three o’clock in the morning in a dark night of the soul, when one needs it most.

A better stiffener of the sinews than alcohol is reading Tennyson aloud, as I hope this short extract illustrates:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly…
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!…
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods…
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Or, if ‘Ulysses’ doesn’t do the trick, what about W E Henley’s  Invictus‘?

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul…
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

This is a sort of whistling in the dark, recommended by many poets, like Emily Brontë who proclaimed:
No coward soul is mine, no trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine, and faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

Pascal talked about the nobility of a reed, destroyed by the wind, and Marcus Aurelius thought you could out-tough the elements:

Be like a cliff at whose foot the waves break and break again; but it stands firm and by and by the seething waters about it sink to rest.

The chief problem with giving in to fear, though, is how then to recover:
The descent to Hell is easy. All day and all night the portal of Dis is open: but to retrace your steps and escape to the air above, this is the problem and this the task
Virgil, ‘Aeneid
One way to cheat fear is to refuse to take it seriously:

Perhaps I know why it is man alone who laughs: He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

And as Charles Schulz, the author of the ‘Peanuts’ cartoon points out:

Don’t worry about the world coming to an end. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.

Of course, there’s courage, and there’s pointless foolhardiness, as Don Quixote refused to acknowledge when he set off to tilt at windmills:

‘I tell thee they are giants, and therefore, if thou art afraid, go aside and say thy prayers for I am resolved to engage in a dreadful unequal combat against them’. This said, he clapped spurs to his horse Rozinante, without giving ear to his squire Sancho, who bawled out to him, and assured him that they were windmills, and not giants. But he did not so much as hear his squire’s outcry, nor was he sensible of what they were, although he was already very near them. ‘Stand, cowards’, cried he as loud as he could, ‘stand your ground, ignoble creatures, and fly not basely from a single knight, who dares encounter you all’  Miguel de Cervantes

In the end, though, as Victor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning, it is the meaning we give to life which gets us through it:

A man who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how. 

Cowards die many times before their deaths
, said Shakespeare,

and C S Lewis adds:

one is given strength to bear what happens to one, but not the hundred and one things that might happen.


Sometimes we just need to take a deep breath and hope for the best, said Patrick Overton :

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.


Give to the winds thy fears; hope, and be undismayed;
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears;
God shall lift up thy head.
Through waves and clouds and storms
He gently clears the way.
Wait thou His time,
so shall the night soon end in joyous day.

But we can’t all be brave all the time. It may help to remember that:

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof Matthew 6:34

or, as Scarlett O’Hara comforted herself at the end of ‘Gone With the Wind‘:

Try two mantras:
Jack Kerouac: All is well, practice kindness, heaven is nigh

and St Paul: I can do everything through Him who gives me strengthPhilippians 4:13

Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest: to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do thy holy will. Amen.
St Ignatius of Loyola


The illustration is from the Royal Military College of Canada memorial window to Ian Sutherland Brown ( Sir Lancelot whole armour of God) via wikimedia under licence.

1 comment on this post:

UKViewer said...

Thanks. Our Curate preached on this today. She was pretty good. Even had some role play as a youngster put on the Armour of God (home made) and even improvised when the shield (a plastic sledge) slid up and down the aisle on it. Great fun with a serious message.

Got me thinking, which is always good for a sermon.

Satan never wastes a fiery dart on an area covered in armor.”
― Beth Moore

26 August 2012 16:48

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