The popularity of cross training, weightlifting, marathon training, intense biking and so many other workout routines seems to show that many Americans are committed to physical fitness.
Yet big muscles and monster abs do not always translate to fortitude or inner toughness — which is a different ball game and more demanding.
The catechism of the Catholic Church defines fortitude as “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.”
I can’t think of anyone who embodied this virtue better than my own mother, who lived until the age of 91. For over 50 years, she began her day with early Mass in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. I still remember hearing the crunch of the car tires hitting the snow-covered driveway at a little past six a.m. as she backed out of the garage on those dark winter mornings.
After each Mass, Christ was in her heart and she was ready and roaring to go.
Back at home, she’d hustle to get dinner ready well ahead of time, then prepare for her long day as a second grade teacher in the Bloomfield Hills school district. She was also the art teacher of the school, so Mom would always come up with fun and creative projects that the kids could take home and show to their parents.
Our garage was often a greenhouse on weekends, with flowers and plants all over the place as various deliveries and projects took shape. She was also an incredible painter, creating landscapes and portraits for her friends or simply to help someone through a rough patch.
She was also really good at reading the emotional state of our various family members around the dinner table each night — so when the mood went sour, she’d bring out her banjo and start playing “Oh Susannah” or another happy song to lift our spirits. She was incredibly quick to create simple ways to console our hearts — funny faces, a simple joke, a trip to Baskin Robbins for ice cream.
Besides dealing with three Type A sons who were always battling each other, my mom had a special place in her heart and in her routine for my older sister, Debbie, who has battled rheumatoid arthritis since a young age.
“Every day, I make the sign of the cross and thank God for everything He has given me.”
Many people referred to my mom as the Energizer Bunny, but few knew that her deep love for Christ — and of God’s grace through prayer and the sacraments — were the motors that kept her going.
I visited my mom shortly after her serious stroke and many other complications, and she murmured these words to me: “Yesterday, I felt like Jesus on the cross. He suffered so much for us and He did not even know us. He could have taken himself down — but He stayed on that cross for us. I wanted to be taken down from my cross. I wanted the pain to go away, but I offered up all that pain.”
She added, “They asked me how bad my pain was on a scale from 1 to 10. I told them it was a 12.” (She tried to laugh). “As I was dying,” she added, “I thought most of my children, the ones I love so most — and I was afraid of losing that love. I am so blessed to have you as my son, Michael,” she said. “Every day, I make the sign of the cross and thank God for everything He has given me and for everything He has taken away. Thy will be done, Jesus.”
What greater example of fortitude and love for God could there be?
Fr. Michael Sliney is a Catholic priest based in the New York City area and an adviser to the Lumen Institute, a professional business group.