‘Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency,” the late poet Maya Angelou reflected in an interview with USA Today in 1988. “We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”
What a poem she might have written about Meriam Ibrahim, who, along with her family, met with Pope Francis Thursday morning, having just escaped from Sudan. The woman, pregnant at the time, had been imprisoned with her young son and sentenced to death for apostasy from Islam. She was ordered to denounce her Christianity and refused. She gave birth in prison, and was eventually released under international pressure.
One picture in particular seemed an iconic manifestation of the Christianity for which Meriam (the perfect name for a woman committed to saying “yes” to God) risked death: She is a mother holding her most precious child. Perhaps the most important thing for the world to see, though, was that she was a free woman even before she made it to Italian soil: She has the fullest freedom, knowing that she was not made for this world, only to be faithful to God in loving service while in it.
As it happens, just moments before I saw the news about Meriam’s having safely arrived in Italy, I had been reading a bit about the nature of God being unveiled to the world by mothers, from Blessed Columba Marmion, an abbot in Belgium who died in 1923. “God is Love; and, so that we may have some idea of this Love, He gives a sharing in it to mothers,” Marmion wrote in Jesus and His Mysteries. “The heart of a mother, with her untiring tenderness, with the constancy of her solicitude, the inexhaustible delicacy of her affection, is a truly divine creation, although God has placed in it no more than a spark of His love for us.”
Clearly Meriam Ibrahim is courageous. But so, very possibly, is the mother standing next to you on the train as you read this on your iPad, and so are so many women you encounter during a given day or in the course of your life. Being a mother requires vulnerability and gratuitous generosity. It can often be her lot to receive ingratitude in response. And yet she so often joyfully gives, pouring herself out to another. This is love.
Courage has many manifestations. I just spent a weekend with a group that goes by that name: Courage. Its annual conference is a grace-filled gathering of Catholics who have struggled with same-sex attraction. They are not “praying the gay away,” as some might caricature them — some of them are quite open about their continuing longings — but they are committed to chastity, and happy to be chaste. As demonstrated in a powerful new film they’ve put together, Desire of the Everlasting Hills (which you can view for free online at everlastinghills.org), the conversion they seek runs so much deeper than sexual attraction and really has to do with our humanity, knowledge of self, and the good, both for ourselves and for those around us. Healthy lives lived out of joy are not lives without pain, but they are lives led by faith, hope, and, yes, love. Even if there might not be three kids, a dog, and a white-picket fence involved.
Attending a Courage conference is an immersion in a counterculture. Rather than going inward — in a culture of I-everything, where we are forever being drawn into ourselves, often paying attention to the plights of others only so long as it doesn’t burden us or our attention spans for too long — every man and woman I met at the Courage gathering seeks to go outward. And they make common cause with many single men and women who feel a longing to love and be loved in that “happily ever after” way but who have not found themselves in circumstances where that would happen.
One of the speakers at the Courage conference was Immaculée Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Her presence underscored the universality of the cause — Courage is about living healthy, chaste lives, where one’s sexuality is an integrated part of life, not something that controls it. Chastity is for married people as much as for anyone with a different kind of attraction. Ilibagiza spoke about faith, hope, and love. She spoke about gratitude: “How many blessings a day do we have that we forget to be grateful about?” Whenever darkness surrounds you — whether it’s relationships or your financial situation or matters of life and death — she counsels: “Be grateful for one thing — one light — and hold on to that.” And as someone who forgave the people who tried to kill her, as they had killed so many around her, she emphasizes, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting – or moving mountains — but giving yourself permission to see others as human beings who fall!” And, she said, “Cry for people who choose hate.”
The Arabic equivalent of our letter “N” has become ubiquitous on my Twitter feed. In Iraq, it was the letter that would wind up on the houses of Christians as they were made to flee the country. “N” for Nazarene. Christians throughout the world have changed their avatars or made use of the #WeAreN hashtag in solidarity with Iraqi Christians and other persecuted Christians throughout the world. The back-story to Pope Francis’s greeting Meriam Ibrahim and her family almost immediately after they arrived in Italy is that he has stressed that there are more Christians persecuted today for their faith than at any other time in history.
You may never have to flee your homeland, but who doesn’t struggle? Imagine if we all had the courage to live not despite but confronting the crosses of life, drawing strength from this and insisting on never languishing in victimhood. We might be guided by a hope of eternal life or simply be encouraging the good, never expecting a painless life, but never forgetting to look into the eyes of another, with whom you might have more in common than the world can see, and drawing inspiration from courageous people.
Our lives can fall into the lie of “us vs. them” or “near vs. far.” In truth, we have most things in common, whatever our financial bracket or nationality or sexual attraction. If we can break out of the epidemic of self-referentialism, we might just find the kind of freedom that comes from consistently living virtue. It might even become contagious!
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.