As he stood before the rain-soaked crowd estimated to be as great as 20,000, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—with that truly Russian sense of solemn sincerity and conviction—suggested to the 1978 graduating class of Harvard University that what the West lacked above all else—and in his view the West lacked quite a good bit—was courage. Said Solzhenitsyn:
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today… Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life… Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice… Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?
One does not often hear mention of courage or its absence in modern discourse. In fact, one would be most hard-pressed to hear mention of any virtue at all, lest it be mentioned derogatorily. When Solzhenitsyn said that the West lacked courage, perhaps not even he could have seen coming a time such as ours—a time in which virtue has been buried alive and replaced in the public square with a set of ideas parading as values though lacking any value, which represent exactly what our former virtues stood emphatically against. If a decline in courage led to the world of the 1990s and early 2000s, what sort of world will result from its being summarily executed?
Our Russian prophet was lambasted, predictably, by the media (who also received no uncertain measure of scorn for his address) and other cultural elites. How dare this ungrateful exile from the East, taken in by the West—God’s country—say such disparaging things about his one true safe haven? The reaction to his observations, which were actually encouragements for those willing to look past their own ersatz offense, did hurt his reputation, it is true, while at the same time proving his very point. Men of the West lacked the courage to stand up to evil, even the evil within themselves. Solzhenitsyn famously wrote that evil cuts through each human heart. We all have that choice to make—either that we will submit to good or succumb to evil. It may be the nebulous “others” who are responsible for the downward trend of society, but to those “others” we are also “other.” All share blame, and it is in no small part due to our lack, our divorce, and our infidelity against courage, honor, other virtues, and, ultimately, truth itself.
Our Infidelity Against Truth
Western civilization is unquestionably founded upon and has been unmistakably influenced by the Christian worldview. No serious argument exists to refute this claim. As time has soldiered on, however, and as so-called “progressive” ideals have seeped into the popular imagination, our adherence to the truth has weakened and in many ways dissolved entirely. We have forsaken the straight and narrow for the wide and easy, as the former has often led to persecution, alienation, and being forsaken ourselves. Perhaps we can fight the good fight from within, as many have undoubtedly thought to themselves. This is nothing but the Devil speaking through us.
So we come to our modern fragile day. Everything, it seems, teeters on the precipice of ruin. Never has it been easier to gain access to the full body of the Magisterium; the Truth stands at the ready at our very fingertips. Conversely, never have the faithless had such an expansive and visible platform from which to spew their deceitful poison. The “Dark Ages” are so called due to the superstition that it was a worthless period. The Roman Empire had fallen, and the Enlightenment had not yet begun. It was a period of social and cultural darkness. When one looks at the great works done by the Church during this time—a deeply humane work, one laughs at the label of a “dark” age. Were it not for the Church, there would have been no Enlightenment, as it was the Church that worked tirelessly to preserve the wisdom of the ancient world. Dark, indeed.
To the contrary, one could call our own time the new Dark Age, or perhaps even the first true Dark Age, without being called a cynic. What could be darker than the conscious turning away from God and the assumption of the mantle of lies peddled by the countless heretics and snake oil salesmen of our day? If God is the Light, then wandering away from him can only lead to darkness.
When Solzhenitsyn diagnosed the root of our social troubles as a spiritual weakness, he said it was because we lacked courage. Why? Because it takes courage in the truest sense to be men and women of faith in a godless society. C.S. Lewis once wrote that courage is not a virtue unto itself but rather every virtue at its testing point. In other words, any virtue will eventually be put to the test, and only with courage will that virtue be found true in the life of he or she who hopes to live accordingly. Virtue requires courage, and we lack courage, so it should come as no surprise that our society is so susceptible to vice. Lest we forget, no less than Christ our Lord tells us that the world will hate us, it will persecute us, and it will demand our very lives. Those who stand firm in the faith—in Lewisian language, those whose virtue is tested and found true—will see eternity. Faith, then, requires courage.
One might expect that the Church, as the Body of Christ on Earth and the storehouse of all eternal truth, be a bastion of courage. How could it not be one? Yet, we know that even among the Body of Christ, layperson and leader alike, courage is lacking. It can be most discouraging to see this. During a homily following the legislative massacre that was the Irish abortion referendum, my own priest, a good and decent man, spoke powerfully and forcefully against such wanton pursuits of death. Fire poured from his mouth, and, judging by the body language of those in the chapel (not a small crowd particularly for a 7:30 am service), more than a few were badly burned. Perhaps those squirming uncomfortably in the pews were doing so because they vehemently disagreed with Father. Or perhaps they were uncomfortable because they were hearing the truth that they knew and felt deep within themselves and were thus confronted with that most terrible of possibilities—they might just be wrong about something very, very bad.
But if they are wrong, what is to be done? To adhere to what is right might mean social discomfort. Friends may be lost. Status may be lowered. Surely God will forgive them for doing nothing. Surely God will understand that the potential consequences were just too high. It is a difficult thing to stand up for what is true amidst such pervasive hostility. Jesus probably did not intend all that stuff he said to be taken so literally that you and I are actually expected to risk our social or professional lives just to say what is right, or did he? Perhaps we should ask the Apostles, the countless saints who have died as martyrs, or even our Lord. Faith requires courage. It always has and it always will.
We are told to be perfect as Christ is perfect, but how? I have no answer to this question, but it is spelled out very clearly that this is our charge nevertheless. We are called to be saints—not in the casual manner of a really nice or helpful person but, rather, in the manner of existing in eternity before the Ancient of Days. Saints in the manner of those called upon for help by those who remain in the Vale of Tears.
We are called to be saints.
You, who have sinned so profoundly in your life up to this point, are called to be a saint. And you can be one. So many of us say, “No way. There is simply no way I could ever become a saint. They’re so much better than me!” If you believe this, then you are a coward. Why adhere to a religion that calls all its members to sainthood if you do not believe yourself capable of it yourself? Why waste your time and energy going to Mass if you do not believe that you will receive the full gift of the Holy Spirit, or that God expects as much of you as he expected of Jerome, Augustine, or Aquinas? Here is the truth: it is not that one does not believe but rather than one chooses not to. Wide and easy is the way that leads to hell, and God is not a God of cheap grace. Faith requires courage.
We are called to be saints, so let us be saints, for this is precisely what the world, our country, our communities, and our homes need. Let us call out sin when and where we see it, with love, yes, but with courage as well. Let us stop calling it “fake news” and start calling it by its other name—lies. Let us stand up for life—all life—the unborn, the refugee, the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Let us test our courage. If we fail, let us fail spectacularly and try again. Faith is not a dichotomy of pass or fail; we are given a lifetime of opportunities. Finding a place to begin is like finding the right spot of the pool into which to jump: every spot is good. Let us jump in. Let us stop wasting our time and instead be men and women of courage. Let us be saints.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a fresco of Peter walking on water toward Jesus in the Herz Jesus church, Berlin, painted by Friedrich Stummel and Karl Wenzel near the end of the nineteenth century.