In response to a college admission essay prompt of, “What is the most courageous thing you have ever done?” one high school senior used a whole sheet of paper to write simply, “This.”
Gutsy? Courageous? Those words may seem interchangeable, but only courage comes from the Spirit of God. Thankfully, Ignatian spirituality offers six characteristics to help us understand true courage.
1. Courage begins with an openness to invitations from God.
St. Ignatius’s faithful courage began during his convalescence, when he opened his heart to entertain the idea of following God rather than the traditional nobleman’s route. It takes courage to admit that our lives are not our own and to trust that something greater is at work in whatever moment we happen to find ourselves.
2. Courage is birthed in encounter with the other.
The things we do to put ourselves out there and get recognition for ourselves are at best gutsy; only our reputation and ego are on the line. But when we move beyond our comfort zone of individualism to encounter another, seeing the needs of others and realizing we have the potential to sustain them in some way, true courage is born.
3. Courage is cultivated in prayer and discernment.
In prayer we honestly name our fears and share them with God. Being honest with oneself may be the most courageous thing we can ever do. Having fear is human, but seeking and receiving the grace to face our fears is divine. Discerning honest motivations and the will of God in prayer is vital to knowing if what lays before us is an invitation to growth or a temptation to distract from being who we are called to be.
4. Courage takes one step at a time.
The spirit not of God detracts people from moving toward the good by sowing seeds of doubt in one’s capacity and enlarging the possible negative long-term “what ifs.” The Spirit of God, instead, offers the grace of courage for each step of the way. Ignatius had no plan to start a global order of priests or the largest educational network in the world. He did, however, have the courage to discern each decision on the way, seeking only that the outcome reflected movement toward the will of God.
5. Courage is contagious.
The stories of the martyrs and other saints are held as sacred not because these holy people necessarily succeeded by human standards in their efforts, but because their courage to live their faith regardless of personal cost inspires us to follow in their footsteps. Thousands of lay women and men today courageously seek a faith that does justice after being educated, inspired, and mentored by Jesuit and lay mentors and teachers, who themselves had been inspired by the courage of their mentors and faith communities. Courage stands the test of time to inspire others.
6. Courage ultimately means being willing to let our hearts be broken.
The famous words by Joseph Whelan, SJ, (often incorrectly attributed to Pedro Arrupe, SJ) encourage those who practice Ignatian spirituality to “fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” Falling in love means putting one’s heart on the line and having the courage to let it be broken rather than protecting it through isolation or apathy. If actions of faith were guaranteed to have a successful outcome, there would be no need for courage.
Given these characteristics of an Ignatian understanding of courage, I don’t think the college applicant’s one-word essay would live up to Ignatius’s standards. I am left to wonder how I might have answered that prompt. How would you? What’s the most courageous thing you have ever done?