The unconquerable spirit

Published 6:00 am Friday, November 5, 2021

A family friend once told me, “If you can’t think of anything to be grateful for, start with your big toe.” It was her way of being cheerful, even though she had known abandonment, fear and death.

What is cheerfulness? It’s easy to think of it as smiling all the time, which could seem rather shallow and fake if we are having a difficult day. But I think its true meaning is much deeper. It’s actually a turning away from ourselves and towards others. We become sad when we focus on ourselves. So cheerfulness, although often manifested as smiling and kind words, actually means looking outside ourselves, looking towards God, towards others, and to the many blessings He has given us, regardless of what seems to be going wrong. Smiling and kind words necessarily turn us away from our frequently changing feelings. They fix our vision outside our own small but often burdensome world.

Reading a bit of history helps me keep things in perspective. Siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl were intelligent, vivacious university students in Germany during WWII. Aghast at the evils of the Nazi regime, they formed a peaceful, underground resistance group known as “The White Rose,” and reached thousands of people by secretly spreading pamphlets which were a moral protest against Hitler’s State. Finally arrested, they were tried and sentenced to beheading. Sophie, who was 21, had a few words with her parents hours before her death. Eye-witnesses tell us that she left them with her face still lighted by the smile they loved so well and would never see again. She was perfectly composed as she was led away. Immediately after she left her parents, she was seen in her cell, and she was crying. She felt the sadness but was able to smile for their sake, instead of being fixed on their sympathy and her own impending, painful death. (From Richard Hanser’s book, A Noble Treason)

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During a very difficult period in his life, a political prisoner wrote home from prison to his wife and young children, “It is hard to accept our crosses as needful corrections and rejoice in the pain they give; but we have for our instruction the example of our blessed Savior who when suffering agony greater than a mere human could bear, still prayed that he might be spared the affliction only if such should be the will of his Father in Heaven.”

If we smile, if we offer to God what seems difficult to bear, He will see in that our acceptance of His Divine Will after the example of His Son. Though God may not see fit to change our feelings of weariness, disgust, or discontent, He will give us “a strength we know not of” in order to bear our crosses in an unconquerable spirit of true Christian cheerfulness.

BR. MAXIMILIAN WATNER is on the the staff at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Buckingham County. He can be reached at