Sunday 26th September – Our Hidden Courage

A short reflection by Rev. Duncan Voice

I have walked the long road to freedom.
I have tried not to falter;
I have made missteps along the way.
But I have discovered the secret that
after climbing a great hill,
one only finds
that there are many more hills to climb.
I have taken a moment here to rest,
To steal a view of the glorious vista
that surrounds me,
to look back on the distance I have come.
But I can only rest for a moment,
for freedom comes with responsibilities,
and I dare not linger,
for my long walk is not yet ended.
Nelson Mandela

When I was young, and a member of my local scout group, we once went abseiling at some nearby rock formations. I’m not talking about huge mountains or formidable sheer cliffs, but some sandstone outcrops about 5 or 6 metres high. Standing at the bottom looking up they didn’t look too high to my 12-year-old self; but looking down was a different matter. The ground looked a long way off! Then I discovered that abseiling meant leaning backwards over the edge, at 90 degrees to the rockface, and walking down while suspended from a rope. Fear began to rise within me and I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to do it, or indeed could do it!

Hanging back, I watched as my friends went over the edge. Some seemingly relishing the moment they leaned back and disappeared from view. I’m sure some of them were nervous too, but I was too consumed by own sense of impending doom to notice. My nervousness just seemed to be increasing! Finally, they had all gone and there was just me, a scout leader and an instructor. Nowhere to hide now. Could I make some kind of excuse? No, it was too late, I stepped forward to be strapped into the harness and attached to the ropes.

I shuffled towards the edge. My friends milling around below, some waiting for me to finish so that they could have a second go. I positioned myself on the edge looking at the instructor. “Just gradually lean back”, he said. A surge of fear, no I couldn’t do it. Another try and another, still I stood on the edge. Every time I leaned back; my fear made me want to lean forward. Each time this happened, I heard patient words of encouragement from the leaders, “It’s ok, take your time”. I was certainly doing that! By now I had become the centre of attention. Some shouts of encouragement from below. Just lean back. Then somehow it happened. I was standing on the rockface suspended by a rope, looking at the sky. That, I learned, was the difficult bit over. The walk down was relatively easy, and as I neared the ground, I actually enjoyed it – a bit. A small leap for mankind, but a giant one for me!

Once was enough for me that day though. It never became a hobby, but I did do again, once or twice. Later that day my scout leader came over to me and said he was proud of me for overcoming my fear. He said it takes courage to face your fears. That it was ok to be afraid and that there would be no courage needed if I hadn’t been afraid. I thought he was probably just been nice, but over the years I have come to appreciate the truth of this, how there are many times that we need this thing we call courage to help us through our difficulties; and how transformative and important the difficulties that cause us fear can be. Of course, during life’s ups and downs sometimes our courage fails us, but as long as we live, we have the chance to try, or start, again.

As a 12-year-old I didn’t have to go abseiling, but in another sense I did. I wanted to try it as my friends had, and so somehow, I had to face my fear. Fear makes us want to run away and hide. We want it to go away or for someone else to sort it out, but if we are going to do what we need to do, we need to dig deep, as the saying goes. The words and support of others help us, but we need to do it ourselves. In some circumstances, and at times in our lives, we may have very low reserves of courage though; we can feel tired, beaten and thoroughly wretched. But the potential for cultivating courage always exists within us I feel, we just somehow need to discover, or unlock, the hidden treasure of our inner strength. However, opening ourselves up to the fear that we have can be incredibly challenging.

I’m not a psychologist, but I know that people are very complicated and that for some people professional help and support is needed for them to face their fears. We might perhaps think it seems much safer to keep our fears hidden rather than have them exposed. We might feel we are much less vulnerable that way; but there is nothing wrong or shameful about being afraid. When we begin to understand this, we can cultivate compassion towards ourselves, and others who may be feeling fearful, especially in times of difficulty such as the pandemic. In fact, if we are experiencing some fear too, it helps us to empathise and to have the desire to help and support others.

True courage is not about superheroes, it is a quality of the heart and can be observed in everyday people as they face life’s challenges. However, I have been greatly inspired recently by the life of Etty Hillesum who I quoted from in my last Service. I recommend reading Patrick Woodhouse’s book “Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed” as an introduction to her. Her spiritual journey in the face of the most terrifying of circumstances, the holocaust, encourages me to believe in the potential within us when we begin to understand ourselves. She speaks to us across time, to share a message of great possibility and hope. Patrick Woodhouse says:

“Etty interrupts the mood of our time and invites us to be courageous. Courage was perhaps her greatest virtue. With courage she faced up to her personal chaos and found her self; with courage she went deeper in her journey of exploration and discovered the divine ground of her heart; with courage she refused to hate; and with courage she refused to hide, choosing to embrace the fate of her people and loose her life. She showed that a truly human life is lived on the courageous paradoxical path of self-discovery and self-emptying. So, in the midst of darkness she found joy, and was alive in that place despite the power of death.”

May we find the courage we need in our times of difficulty and help when we need it. May we learn from our struggles and difficulties to become encouragers and healers.

“We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds”
The final words in Etty Hillesum’s diary, 13th October 1942.

You may like to sit for a few moments of quite reflection before reading our closing words from John O’Donohue.

For Courage by John O’Donohue

When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as stone inside,

When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,

When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,

Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world,

Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,

Know that you are not alone
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.

Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.

Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark.
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.

A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
Will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!

Excerpt from Benedictus: A book of Blessings by John O’ Donohue, published by Bantam Press

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