"Fain Would I Climb,
But I Fear to Fall"
During tea this evening there were copies
of a little notice on the tables. Paragraph 2 of this notice
read, "It has been asserted that every Legionary is capable
of making a good speech or writing a thoroughly good article.
In actual fact few of them do so. If all Legionaries could
be induced to expand in this way, the advantages are obvious."
I think that little paragraph contains something of supreme
importance from the Legionary point of view. I was delighted
when I saw it, because it constitutes an admirable taking-off
ground for the observations which I intend to make.
Destructive Power of Fear
Why is it that Legionaries who possess, as
we know them to possess, the capacity to shine in one way
or another, make so little effort to use it or to develop
It? Why, for instance, in the discussion we have just had
about that most interesting subject of the spirit in Sport,
could only one in fifty be induced to come forward and say
anything? Yet everybody has ideas on the subject, and is well
capable of expressing them. What is it that stands in the
way? It seems to me the answer is Fear; and is on
that answer I am going to base my talk. Call it whatever you
like, the basic reason is fear, common fear. In the life of
everybody without exception that very thing, fear, is playing
a damping part, and it tends to play a destructive one. In
many cases that natural tendency is offset by circumstances
which press in the opposite direction. Take for instance the
armies of the world. Take our own Legion. In the armies it
is largely overcome by discipline. In the Legion it is counterbalanced
to some extent by the sum total of the forces, natural and
supernatural, which we call the Legion system. But where these
things do not operate to neutralize the action of fear, it
exercises its baneful influence over people's lives and character.
It leaves them like seeds which can expand a hundredfold,
but which, by reason of lack of heat or moisture, do not germinate.
If that is a fact, it constitutes a tragedy. It means that
mankind is only realizing a fraction, perhaps a small fraction,
of its possibilities. If so, what a loss! Conversely, it means
that the life which could emancipate itself from the restraining
grip of fear, would accomplish very great things in itself
and for the world. That is an intriguing possibility. It is
worth all the attention we can give it.
The Legion, as you will have gathered from
the Handbook, recognizes the importance of courage,
and in the section on the duties of members it puts before
us very prominently and very forcibly the need for that virtue.
It insists that as the ordinary soldier must have courage
as an essential of his very soldiership, so must the Legionary
have courage; and that the Legionary without courage, is no
use to the Legion. With its eye on the work usually performed
by Legionaries, the Handbook stresses the importance
of moral courage. It develops the subject of human respect,
and compares human respect in the Legionary to rank cowardice
in the case of the ordinary soldier. This is a justified comparison,
for if human respect were permitted to work untrammeled, Legionary
action would for the most part be reduced to nullity. Therefore
the Legion system sets out to counter the disastrous effects
of human respect. In this, I think, it is supremely successful.
Flowers in Courage
But there is an element of danger, it seems
to me, that from this stressing of the evil of human respect
and the necessity for combating it, we might conclude that
there is only need for courage in that particular form. We
might think that once we get outside what I must for the sake
of clearness call the religious or devotional part of our
lives, then the Legion is not further concerned in demonstrations
of courage-and in fact that courage is only a secular or worldly
virtue. I urge that such a view on the part of Legionaries
would be a complete misconception, and would in fact constitute
a disaster for them. For there should not be to the Legion-any
more than there is before God-such a thing as a non-religious
or non-Christian part of the Christian life.
The Legion peremptorily insists that we are
always on duty, and a while ago we listened to a discussion
which has put that principle very strongly before us. The
playing of games was the subject of that discussion. We were
talking about something that many might think to be outside
the ordinary Legionary life. But the Legion holds the contrary.
It insists that those games are part and parcel of its sphere
and everything else as well as games; and that a Legionary
who is only a Legionary during a few hours a week of Legionary
work is an absolute failure from the Legion point of view.
Those few hours are really meant to be your school-time, where
you are taught principles for the purpose of putting them
into universal practice. The other hours are really the more
important in the sense that they are the more numerous. You
are not a Catholic merely during the time of your prayers.
You are not a Legionary only during your hours of Legionary
work. You are always a Catholic and likewise you are always
a Legionary--at least that is the Legionary conception of
things. You are a Legionary during what might be called your
secular hours, that is during your whole life. If, therefore,
you are leaving out the courage which imparts virility to
the secular part of your lives, you are not Legionaries during
that time. For courage is the soldierly, the Christian quality.
It ranks first in the sense that it is the test of all the
others. As the rose root must produce the rose, and the lily-root
the lily, so must the Legionary life flower in courage. You
may object: "What about prayerfulness, what about sweetness?"
Of course we must possess those things, but they must have
the fibre of courage in them. Otherwise they are fictitious
virtues. They wilt under trial. They can stand no test.
Blighting Influence of Fear
Yet of such fair-weather fabric are our lives.
Generally we live them in the shadow of fear-fear of every
sort of thing, usually fear of failure. That is why we will
not get up and talk. We are afraid of failing. We are afraid
that we will be laughed at, that we may make fools of ourselves.
Then there is fear of criticism. Fear of poverty. Innumerable
people live through their lives on a certain low level because
they are afraid to face the risks that are incidental to climbing.
That low level holds no possibilities of any kind, but of
course, it is safe. Fear has many other forms. Fear of death--some
are obsessed by such an abject fear of death that to them
might truly be applied the title of that film: "Each Dawn
I Die." Fear of disease--people will not go into certain
places or do certain things because they are afraid they may
catch something. In the case of a vast number it is fear of
disgrace--a particularly powerful influence. But in any case,
fear, fear, fear--hiding itself under all sorts of guises,
but at the bottom common fear all the time. In some cases
the things feared are so remote and so unlikely that what
is at work is really nothing more than the fear of fear--as
Seneca describes it. Thereby we are hedged off from our wide
possibilities. Most of these dreads are purely imaginary.
But real or imaginary, they are stunting growth. Innumerable
fine things fear destroys in germ. On every life it exercises
its blighting influence. Sometimes favoring forces enter in
to neutralize that influence. In the Legion, for instance,
you are experiencing such a force. It enables you to overcome
the various fears and reluctances which beset the path of
Legionary duty. The system of your organization lifts you
superior to fear. If that be so, what a tragedy if you should
narrow down the sphere of Legionary duty, so that for a couple
of hours in the week you are heroes and heroines, and for
the balance just common fear-ruled folk. No, just as the Legionary
is always on duty, so likewise must that Legionary
fearlessness overflow the banks of the purely Legionary employments
and inundate the whole life.
But it is not enough to make resolutions
and to hope for the best. We must conduct a deliberate campaign
against the operations of this fear. In its character of human
respect we do understand it, and we do campaign against it.
All spiritual books suggest expedients to that end. I will
mention just a few. One is the wearing of a religious badge.
That is an excellent means of countering human respect, which--briefly
defined--is the fear to manifest your religion publicly. Then
there is the blessing of yourself at meals in public places.
If you are taking a sandwich in a public house, or in some
similar place, where such an act is bound to attract attention,
do not be afraid to bless yourself One of the finest men I
know told me that the performance of that little act originally
cost him an awful lot. Then there is the question of the Angelus;
or the touching of your hat when passing a Church, especially
when you are in company with people who would look at you
because you showed that little mark of respect. Note: you
are afraid of even being looked at. In the life of St. Philip
Neri you will find some striking examples of his determination
to root out that sort of thing in his disciples. He had many
of the young nobles of Rome as his spiritual children and
on these he used to impose the most bizarre things. For instance,
he made one young scion of a noble family tie a fox's tail
on behind and thus adorned perambulate the streets of Rome.
You can imagine what a terrible experience that was for the
victim. To that proud type of man death itself would almost
be preferable. Therefore that victory over self is a very
great victory--falling nowise short of real heroism.
Begging a Penny
Here is another interesting example of that
kind of heroism. It is not without its funny side, but it
shows the way strong souls set out to deal with a great evil
when they understand it is an evil. A close friend of mine,
one of the holiest and most characterful men that I have ever
known, was under the direction at one time of an eminent saint.
That director had uncompromising ideas in regard to instilling
the spirit of courage or virility into his subjects.
The following was an order that my friend
received on one occasion: "You are to go out into the
streets of your city and beg a penny." Yes, those were
the unbelievable words he heard, and my friend, who was a
very well-known figure indeed in this city, nearly passed
away. Try to put yourself in his place. Courage, I can assure
you, he had. He had the courage of ten stout lions, but at
the ghastly prospect even his great heart almost failed.
But "almost" is the saving word--he bowed to the command.
Then for a day or two he almost sweated blood while
he mentally acclimatized himself to the ordeal of going forth.
He had fevered notions of donning a false moustache, or of
otherwise trying to disguise himself. But he reasoned that
such would not be playing the game in the Spartan spirit which
was intended. So he put on his overcoat, turned its collar
up, and pulled his hat as far down over his head as he felt
he might in accordance with the spirit of the game. Then off
he went to the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in High
Street--the Augustinian Church. He stood on the porch, and
to everyone who entered or went out he spoke the conventional
beggar's formula: "Spare a penny for a poor man."
As he afterwards declared, he went through the tortures of
the damned for fear (as was quite likely) he would be known.
Consider how someone, having recognized him,
would hurry off to say to others: "I did, with my own
eyes, I saw him. He must have gone stark staring mad."
That would make his position in the city very difficult--to
put it mildly. It added to the torture of this thought that
some abused him, telling him he ought to be ashamed of himself,
an able-bodied man like him to be begging. Eventually one
woman gave him a halfpenny. But that did not fulfil the contract.
At this stage he eased his nerves by seeking fresh fields
and pastures new. He moved on to James's Street Church and
took up his stand in the porch there. After he had suffered
there for some time, a very poor man sidled up to him and
said: "I am poorer than yourself, but here is a penny
for you." With fervent thanks--and clutching that hard-earned
penny (subsequently cherished as a precious memento)--my friend
went off home. Think that out in all its bearings and you
will find in it an act of heroism which I do not think many
of us here would be capable of.
Means Defying Fear
Now that very same sort of attitude that
we realize to be necessary towards human respect--that is
the universally aggressive attitude, the determination to
face and fight it down for the sake of God and for the sake
of religion--must also be adopted by all in the "secular"
part of their lives in regard to the appropriate sort of fear
that shows itself there. That becomes imperative in the case
of Legionaries because courage has become your profession,
and because you are not low-road people. The very fact that
you have stepped into the Legion ranks lifts you out of the
common category. You are a high class of people. I do not
say this just to please. I merely state a fact. You are--or
at least I suppose you are--aiming at sanctity. The definition
of sanctity is heroic virtue, and heroism means the defying
of fear, the rising superior to fear. Therefore, if sanctity
is real sanctity, it must show itself in the form of courage.
If it does not, then what looked like sanctity is not sanctity--it
is a fictitious thing. If someone you know prays the skies
down, but is not prepared to show courage when and where required,
then that sanctity is unreal.
But here we must make a few distinctions.
Heroism is the setting aside of fear when it stands in the
way of something that must needs be done. Must we always stamp
on fear when it rises up in us? Are we bound by our Catholicism
to do so? Of course we are not. For fear is an elementary
human instinct. It is a signpost, a warning, and it is a very
important thing that we should possess that instinct. If we
had it not, we would all be killed in less than no time. Fault
only lies in giving in to it when we should not give in to
it. Suppose somebody defies you to swim across a tricky, current-swept
channel which is more or less out of your powers. Are you
supposed to go ahead in the teeth of your natural shrinking?
Needless to say, you are not. Or, someone challenges you to
go in off a twenty-foot spring board. You have not the skill
for that dive, so at once the danger-signal of fear shows
itself. Are you obliged to disregard that signal? What does
your Catholicism tell you to do? It tells you that you are
to do nothing of the kind. Again, supposing someone wants
you to loop-the-loop in an aeroplane, and you are afraid--are
you supposed to throw that fear to the winds in every sense
of the word? Of course not. Or take a topical example. During
a bombing raid, are you supposed to walk out in the streets
merely in order to prove your courage? You are not. That would
be without purpose. It would be sheer bravado, foolhardiness.
It would be a nobler act to ignore that challenge and all
others like it. But the very moment that duty and principle
step into the transaction, things become quite different.
What was bravado before is bravery now. That foolhardiness
has become fine living. Dangerous living may be a duty, and
then you must not hold back by fear from doing what that duty
tells you should be done, however awful its aspect may be,
and though the danger signal of fear fly at top mast. You
may retort: "Why pick out these extreme examples, such
as bombs, aeroplanes and such like?" Well, when Our Blessed
Lord was talking of a test, He picked out an even more extreme
one. He specified the laying down of one's life as the acid-test
of quality and love. Are you prepared to lay down your life
When we want to excuse ourselves for weakness
in the face of fear, we take those references to venturing
and laying down of life as a kind of pious talk or as counsels
of perfection which do not apply to us all. That is not so.
It is absolutely essential that we be prepared to stand up
and face whatever may betide when there is a duty to be done.
And there is more than a personal duty. There is a duty on
behalf of religion in general. It is of extreme importance
that religion be a virile thing--a tough thing in fact--though
most people do not think that way in regard to religion. Religion
must be the toughest of things, and the people who are practicing
religion should be tough, essentially tough. I do not mean
tough in the modern American sense of the word. The toughness
I mean includes in their proper proportion ingredients like
sweetness and gentleness. These latter must of course be there,
but they must be founded on and fortified by strength of character.
I cannot but feel that there is an over-stressing in religion
of the importance of sweetness, and that the impression exists
that the strong things must yield to it. Not so. Take those
people Brother Nagle (Jack Nagle, an outstanding Dublin Legionary,
who was for many years either the President, or other Officer,
of the Concilium, the supreme ruling Council of the Legion
of Mary) mentioned a while ago. He picked those two Saints,
St. Jerome and St. Paul, because they were both hot-tempered
men, strong of temper and strong of speech. They were tough
men, and yet--because they were great saints--we can be assured
that sweetness was a significant part of their make-up. But
toughness had to be there. If we do not see that, then we
are earning for religion the reputation of being a soft thing,
that only softies practice. We are creating the impression
that the Legionaries of Satan are the really virile people
of the world; whereas the opposite should be the case. Imagine
how destructive to the interests of religion such a popular
misconception would be. Its first effect would be that upstanding
young people (who place special value on courage) would look
on religion as effeminate, and would only practice it by stealth
if they practiced it at all.
on to Fear-Barbed Duty
If in your ordinary life you set yourselves
to do anything worth while, fear will automatically rise up
in front of you. If fear does not present itself, you are
either a freak or you are leading a low-level existence; very
probably you are shirking the grim and worthwhile things of
life. I take it that there are not many freaks here before
me. Therefore if you are not constantly encountering fear
on your road, you are not trying to lead a high-level life.
If you start to climb a mountain, the atmosphere becomes rarefied
as you proceed. Your breathing becomes difficult, and your
heart starts to labor. A painful sensation takes possession
of you. In the same way when we start moving upwards in the
spiritual life (by which I mean the whole life lived from
the Catholic angle), we run into the rarefied atmosphere of
What is to be our rule of thought in those
moments in which both body and soul are chilled, resolution
falters, and excuses swarm? It is that we must try to exclude
every consideration but the one: Where lies the path of duty?
Is it our duty to go ahead? If It is, and if we be virile
people, then we will go ahead. We will crush within us that
instinct of fear to which most people yield. We thereby press
on to our destiny, while those others that shrink back from
fear-barbed duty, miss perhaps the main-road of their life.
When minor fear presents itself to you, counter
it in a wholesale way by comparing it with the worst. Say
to yourself. "This is not a life and death matter. But
even if it were, it would be my duty to see things through.
I must accept death or I play false to my soul." Confronted
in that powerful, challenging way, that fear is almost extinguished.
Thus reduced to the realms of the ridiculous, it no longer
has the hold on you that it had, and you go boldly on. It
is an excellent thing thus to contemplate the worst and then
deliberately devote yourself. Face up to your duty in the
extreme; then the minor timidities shrink into insignificance.
and Public Opinion
In all that I have said I am not talking
in terms of physical fear alone, but in a wider sense. I am
thinking of all sorts of fear. There is another type of fear
that has a great intimidatory power--what I may call human
respect in the secular sphere, that is fear of public opinion
or mob-rule. This is a peculiarly hard thing to stand up against
in this mass-production world of ours. It requires abnormal
force of character, especially in those who are placed in
positions of government or control. Usually, such persons
play up to the mob-spirit (which is not a good spirit) instead
of trying to educate it and master it. Moreover, how the very
best amongst us are dominated by the herd-instinct of our
own particular class or trade, or by some code that we happen
to be in thrall to.
Some things in these codes are commonly enough
very wrong-things which only consider the benefit of that
particular class, and which are directed against the common
good. Yet we conform to them on the grounds that all the others
are doing it, and therefore that it is excusable for us to
follow suit. We do not see in that yielding to fear a betrayal
of honor--which in very fact it is. Various examples will
occur to each one of you. Every calling has these black spots
in it, and many estimable Catholics yield to these things.
It is that case of sport all over again. You play football
as a man, not as a Christian; and in your trade you are the
tradesman, not the Christian. Thereby both sport and profession
are debased to the level of thought and conduct of the natural
man, so that eventually they become corrupting influences.
Always you excuse yourself by the argument that all the others
are doing it--an argument which you should resist because
it is not right and because it is but fear that argues in
you. Evils are only removed by people bravely standing out
against them. It always takes one man to stand out--and that
man may be victimized. He may be boycotted by his fellows,
and no harder thing exists than to render oneself a pariah
in one's own class. Cast your minds back in history and you
will realize what that has often-times entailed--one's life
reduced to hell--in many cases death. It takes a very noble
person thus to stand up against the mob. But if you do
not stand out, do not disguise the issue by fine phrases
or in any other way. The real issue is fear: fear versus honor,
fear versus duty, fear versus religion.
Persecution for Principles
You may say: "Surely if I am going to
lead a life of that kind, always taking the higher level and
always fighting fear, morning, noon and night, what a terrible
life that is going to be.." That is true indeed, and
remember too that fear is not only a present thing. Fear casts
its shadow far ahead--over whole years. It can be a dreadful
thing if you are making a fight against it. I know that only
too well, because I myself have lived in an atmosphere of
fear for whole years. It will corrode you mentally and physically
if you set yourself to fight against it. It is going to mean
a very, very hard sort of life--surely as you say, an intolerable
existence. But were you sent into this world to have a sort
of sweetmeat existence? On the contrary, you were sent to
tread hard ways on to the highest possible things--to suffer
persecution for your principles, even to lay down your life
for them--and you must be prepared to do so.
Model of Courage
A model we have in all these things, and
what better model for a Legionary than Our Blessed Lady herself.
But let us understand how, for no person was ever so little
understood as Our Blessed Lady. We are far too much inclined
to think of her as just a sweet, amiable sort of person, possessing
incredible sweetness and beauty and gentleness and love and
all such delights. But make no mistake about it, Our Lady
was very much more than that. Of her the Handbook says
that of all women, of all men, she was the most strong. She
was the strong Woman. The Mary of the Gospel, the Queen of
the Legion was no shrinking miss; and if all your reading
has given you that impression of her, you are very grievously
astray. The whole character of Our Lady was a character of
strength. She was the Tower of David. She was the Tower of
Ivory. She was the army set in array. Do not let us misunderstand
Now what was the characteristic of her whole
life? I would say respectfully that she lived throughout under
the shadow of intolerable and ever-present anguishing fear,
a fear which reached down into her very marrow, and rendered
every single second of her life one of unutterable torture.
That dreadful instinct of fear was certainly with her from
the time of the prophecy of Simeon. You must remember that
of all people she was the most versed in the Prophecies of
the Old Testament. Moreover, with her keener intellect she
saw these things in a way that no other person could see them.
Therefore she understood all the horrors that were awaiting
her Son, and of course everything that he suffered she was
to suffer. Her compassion meant her Son and herself suffering
together, almost in the one flesh-two people nailed to the
one Cross in the end. That meant agony surpassing comprehension.
All the sufferings of the world put together were as nothing
to hers. The thought of all the future held in store was ever
present to her. In proportion to that clearness of vision
and to her unparalleled strength and courage, she must have
felt the weight of fear to an awful degree. Did it ever relax
its torturing grip on her Immaculate Heart? Yet from the outset,
unshakingly and imperturbably, she goes ahead. Never does
she falter either in her step or in her look or in her soul.
Yet in her is no admixture of hardness, or truculence, or
of resisting for the mere sake of resisting--all of which
things would be contrary to charity.
Such is our model. So when we find that the
same icy hand of fear pushes into our life, and tries to press
us back from duty we should turn our thoughts to her. Thereby
we do two efficacious things. Thinking with Mary, we see our
duty ultra clear; thinking of her, we challenge fear in the
arena of our minds, and that challenge is half the victory.
But more than that, Mary is the Mother of our souls and our
Legionary Leader. In her gift are the graces that will enable
us to crush down that fear and manfully to march the path
of duty--lead where it will--on to the realization of our
destiny in Christ--even on to a Cross!