Monday, March 22, 2010

The Fear of the Lord

I'm still pondering this theme I've blogged about in the last week, this theme I can't quite name and yet has been under so much of what has transpired in me within the last year or so.

The more I write about it, the more I hope to understand.

Yesterday I pulled up a couple of helpful tidbits thanks to Google. The first is from Aquinas's Summa Theologica II-II Q.19 A. 4. Aquinas's answer to the question "Whether servile fear is good?":

I answer that, It is owing to its servility that servile fear may be evil. For servitude is opposed to freedom. Since, then, "what is free is cause of itself" (Metaph. i, 2), a slave is one who does not act as cause of his own action, but as though moved from without. Now whoever does a thing through love, does it of himself so to speak, because it is by his own inclination that he is moved to act: so that it is contrary to the very notion of servility that one should act from love. Consequently servile fear as such is contrary to charity: so that if servility were essential to fear, servile fear would be evil simply, even as adultery is evil simply, because that which makes it contrary to charity belongs to its very species.
This is in the larger discussion of fear as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and here he is differentiating between the gift of the fear of the Lord and servility in fear.

Then I came across this article by Mark Shea on the gift of fear. He states, "when you get rid of the fear of the Lord, you don’t get fearlessness. You get servile fear."

The fear of the Lord. That phrase rings in my ears. I remember my former pastor (pre-Catholic) counseling me to read a book about the fear of the Lord, encouraging me to grow in this virtue. To my ears, it is probably the most attractive-sounding of the traditional seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. And I'm sure it is because something for which I have particular need.

I have faced circumstances in the last year that have made me feel that I've been living dangerously. Having said that, I've also described myself frequently in the last year as someone who is most comfortable sitting in the back of a darkened closet with a book and a flashlight. So, sometimes normal life seems dangerous. Still, I know my previous horizons have been significantly expanded. What has moved me forward? Only the sense that God's love is in front of me, compelling me, and that to turn away would be a worse pain than whatever the "danger" or risk seems to present. Love casts out fear.

Then Mark says:

It is often only belatedly that we realize that the Gospel comes, in part, to cast out such cringing, crawling servile fear. When we do finally take a hard look at the fear of the Lord, we discover that Jesus feared God, but he never cowered before his Father. On the contrary, his courage has been the model of the courage of all the saints.
and I think again of those words of Scripture that hit me at Mass last week: "he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God" (John 5:18). If that isn't the most courageous act ever, I don't know what is. Ask any Jewish (or Muslim) believer what this does to their worldview. These were strikingly revolutionary words to their first hearers.

Mark throws in a political application for good measure:

There is a confidence, a free and easy step, in the stride of the saints that is in sharp contrast to the craven cowardice of the bureaucrats of atheistic totalitarian regimes who began with bold promises to liberate us from the fear of God and ended in lickspittle prostration before the terrors of Mao, Hitler and Stalin. For the fear of God is the awe and reverence due what is truly good, not a mere cowering in the face of Power.
Then, this:
That feeling of delighted humility, of knowing just how small you are in the face of the immeasurably good and beautiful Power. That’s the first gift God gives us, and it is meant to turn us not into dogs, but into children who forget ourselves and the burden of pride in our joy at the sight of God.

This strange combination of fear and delight is, in fact, one of the special graces of childhood. The gift of fear graces us to carry it with us into our adult lives. It’s the mystery Kenneth Grahame hints at when Rat and Mole have their own encounter with the Ineffable in The Wind in the Willows:

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love.

“Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet — and yet — O, Mole, I am afraid!”

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

There's that word again: worship. And yes, I have known that sense that Rat had, again and again. Yet it is the kind of grace I have experienced like a drop of water going into thirsty ground. So intensely do I need this; so intensely do I long for more.

I see what was so attractive to me in John Michael Talbot, as I wrote about his testimony. I remember an exchange between him and our tour guide during the Holy Land pilgrimage when the tour guide was trying to lobby for us to attend Mass at his parish, and JMT was trying to get clear whether his Church was in union with Rome. It turns out it was, but the complicated discussion that ensued showed me that John Michael held as his top priority the fear of God, and not the fear of unsettling this particular man. Yet when the truth was ascertained, I saw the depth of humility and charity in John Michael's heart toward this man. Without recreating the conversation it is hard to paint the scene (even if I did it would be hard to recreate without the dynamic of actually witnessing it -- one of the great perks of sitting in the front of the bus!) but the experience impacted me deeply, because I witnessed John Michael's fierce love for God and the well-being of the community gathered under him. To call it ferocious wouldn't be exaggerating. And in the next instant to see his gentleness... it was astounding. I get the sense that this is rooted in the gift of fear as Mark Shea and Aquinas write of it. And it bears witness to a life lived apart from servile fear.

Veni Sancte Spiritus

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

One of the great gifts of CGS is to be able to observe children in their relationship with God. They know how small they are and how huge God is, and they can indicate a path for us.

Another thing that helps with understanding "Fear of the Lord" is to see how the Liturgy understands it. In naming the gifts of the Holy Spirit, during the Rite of Confirmation, the Liturgy bundles "Fear of the Lord" and "Delight in the Fear of the Lord" (from Isaiah, elsewhere designated Fear of the Lord and Piety) into three new words: Reverence, Wonder, and Awe.

Romano Guardini has a beautiful meditation on Reverence in his book, "Understanding the Virtues that Lead to God." In it, he writes that even God experiences Reverence (arguing that it wouldn't be a virtue if it weren't first part of God's being). When I get a chance, I'll copy out what he write about Reverence on my blog for you.