The courage of love
Tharros, we call it in Greek, or, borrowing from our European neighbors, we use the folksy and poetic courayio. I used to have images in my head for this wondrous attribute, this word, courage. Because of Greek history, the images were military. Leonidas and his three hundred saying to Xerxes at Thermopylae, Molon, Lave, ''Come and take us.'' How I thrilled at those words, which echoed with other laconic phrases through the Greek centuries of existence, reaching down to the decade of my birth with the ''No!'' ochi, to Mussolini.Skip to next paragraph
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During the war, the meaning of courage took on many shapes, but the one I remember best occurred in Athens as the first act of defiance against the Nazis.
Two university students, nineteen years of age, climbed the Acropolis, and after four desperate tries, brought down the Nazi flag which was desecrating the air of the ancient rock. After that moonlit night of May 31, 1941, the Athenians woke to see again the purity of the beloved sight, recognized instinctively that the absence of the swastika meant an act of courage, and took heart. What attracted me when I learned of it years later was that it meant defiance without the shedding of blood.
Since then, courage for me has taken on peaceful faces and recognizable names. There have been many, and they belong to various nations and races. But since September, '82, one name has stood for courage in my thoughts, the embodiment of all that special word connotes: enormous self-respect, defiance to injustice, even when practiced by a powerful government, total disregard for personal safety, and a masterly ability to express this defiance, this peaceful resistance, with words.
This is what I wrote when I first saw him, and after months of thinking about him, it is still valid:
A slight man, he stands alone on the stage of the huge, ornate theater in New Orleans, delighted and surprised to be among us. Bishop Desmond Tutu, in a lilting, melodic accent, tells jokes spontaneously and fills the hall with laughter. I listen to him in amazement and know that this black South African Christian is making demands upon my loyalties which I cannot ignore.
Such momentous confrontations have happened very rarely in my life - this experience of being part of an audience, a stranger among strangers, listening to a speaker who is ignorant of my particular existence and yet who is speaking directly to me, changing me.
Bishop Tutu, poignantly funny at first, tenderly personal in his greeting to the thousands of church people whose prayers and political insistence broke down the intransigence of his government and brought him to the United States for nineteen days, grows gradually, despite his stature, into the giant of courage he is.
I listen to him and monitor something remarkable that is happening to me. ''I will never forget his presence,'' I think, ''this man speaks with authority. I will never again allow myself to be intimidated by the powerful when they are unjust to the weak.'' I am making commitments which later will frighten me. Haven't I enough social concerns already? Why should this stranger command me to do more? I have no connections to South Africa. But my heart knows that is not true. As with other loves in my life, this too started with a book.