Fear, Holy and Unholy

Advent may not seem the time for considering fear. But if we are thinking with the mind of the Church as expressed in her liturgy, we look forward to two “advents” of Jesus: His coming in mercy, which is mystically renewed at the Midnight Mass; and the second coming in justice at the end of the ages. For reasons that will become apparent soon enough, even that sweet advent of the Babe of Bethlehem is related to fear in its highest form.

The Bible has many references to fear, which at first blush seem conflicting. Here are a few examples. First, we have what we might call the “anti-fear” verses:

  • “Fear is not in charity: but perfect charity casteth out fear, because fear hath pain. And he that feareth, is not perfected in charity” (1 John 4:18).
  • “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father)” (Rom. 8:15).
  • “ Fear not, little flock, for it hath pleased your Father to give you a kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Then there are the “pro-fear” verses:

  • This one appears in three passages of the Old Testament: “The fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 110:10; Proverbs 1:7; Ecclesiasticus 1:16).
  • “The fear of God is the beginning of his love” (Ecclesiasticus 25:16).
  • “And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord” (Isaias 11:3). This one is the end of the enumeration of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. The “he” spoken of is the Messias, the flower that sprang from the rod of Jesse, and upon whom the Spirit of the Lord shall rest.

The question begs to be asked: is fear a good thing, or a bad thing? Further, does fear have a place in the spiritual life of a Catholic, either the spiritual life of the beginner in the way of virtue, or of advanced souls?

To answer these questions properly, we must make some important distinctions. First, fear exists as a human passion, or emotion. As such, it is neither good nor bad, but must be subjected to reason, just as the other ten passions must be. If we did not have this kind of fear, we would not be human. We would also be getting in a lot more car crashes. Brother Francis used to explain the utility of the passion of fear by pointing to the example of a rabbit, which, in the presence of a fox, will dart off in no time. Brother liked this example because few more timorous looking animals can be conceived than the rabbit. The passion of fear is an important mechanism to assist the animal’s instinct of self preservation.

When we rise above the realm of the emotions and speak of the kind of fear that exists in the will, we can make a three-fold distinction, following the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas: mundane fear, servile fear, and filial fear. The following summary of these comes from Father Chad Ripperger’s book, Introduction to the Science of Mental Health (pgs. 390-391, emphasis mine):

St. Thomas distinguishes between different kinds of fear in relation to the discussion of [the gift of] Fear of the Lord. The first is mundane or human fear which consists of turning away from God because of the evil the man has performed. Since man turns away from God in this kind of fear, mundane fear is always evil. It comes from the love of this world as our end, rather than God. So, as one pursues this world, he turns away from God, because God is seen as someone who stands in his way in relation to this world.

The second kind of fear is called servile fear in which one turns to God and adheres to Him out of fear of being punished. Servile fear, insofar as it is concerned with oneself and one’s own good is contrary to charity, which concerns God above all things. Servile fear has as its object punishment, insofar as God can be feared as inflicting the evil of punishment… . Since considering God’s justice gives rise to fear, servile fear sees that the punishment is evil and this in itself is good.

The third kind of fear is filial fear or chaste fear, which consists in a turning to God; it is a fear of the blame of sin insofar as one does not want to offend God. Filial fear does not look to God as an active principle of blame, but as the end from which on can be separated by blame. From this we see that the gift of Fear of the Lord refers to filial or chaste fear insofar as God moves us, not to self, but to Himself.

Jesus and the New Testament writers employed fear and threats of punishment: Our Lord’s teachings on Hell, His parables that speak of the punishment of the wicked, His warnings of the end times; the stern admonitions of Saints Peter, Paul, John, Jude, and James; and of course, the great tradition of the preachers of the Church arousing sinners out of their spiritual torpor by preaching so-called “Hellfire and Brimstone” sermons.

Yet they — Our Lord and His saints — did not restrict themselves to this one theme and they elevated men above it to the high consideration of God’s goodness, holiness, charity, and the joy which is to be ours if we abide in divine love. Saint John tells us, “God is charity: and he that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him” (I John 4:16). Of the reward of the just, Our Lord tells us: “Well done, good and faithful servant … enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21). And Saint Paul says, “That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).

Perhaps more moving to the human heart than those considerations is the superabundance of effective charity Jesus poured forth for us in in bitter Passion. I read the account of an old mission preacher who related that he caught more “big fish” in the confessional after his sermon on the Passion than after his sermon on Hell. (No doubt, the two sermons had a cumulative effect.)

Fear of the Lord is the lowest of the Gifts, according to Saint Thomas. Yet it is the beginning of the highest Gift, i.e., Wisdom, which perfects Charity.

Fear This! Florentine mosaic Last Judgement, around 1300 (source)

The first effect of the gift of Fear of the Lord is that it “gives one a lively sentiment of the grandeur and majesty of God, which leaves in the soul a profound adoration filled with reverence and humility” (Ripperger, pg. 393). It also causes a great horror of sin and sorrow for committing it, vigilance in avoiding occasions of offending God, and perfect detachment from created things. When considered in its influence on the cardinal virtue of temperance, which is the virtue this gift perfects, it has the following effects: a vivid awareness of God’s holiness and purity, a loss of interest in the pleasures of illicit attachments, a high degree of humility, and a deep appreciation of the interior life of grace.

The fear of God must grow — in the sense of mature — into a loving reverence, such as what a good child feels for a benevolent parent. According to Saint Thomas, as divine charity increases in the soul, one fears to offend God more. The more charity one has, the more will the Gift of Fear of the Lord be operative in the soul, and, consequently, the less servile fear will one have.

A practical note for parents: If children do not receive kindness, patience, understanding, joy, attention, affective love, and, above all, the self-sacrificing interest of both parents, from their earliest childhood, it will be difficult for them to develop a sense of filial fear and filial love of God the Father and a trustful devotion to the Blessed Mother. If they get too little of those things, but do get a heavy dose of fear, they will, barring a miracle of grace, become mentally pathological and hateful of the religion.

Saint Paul wrote to the Galatians, “And because you are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying: Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6). Our Lady of Guadalupe told Saint Juan Diego “Am I not here who am your mother?” These images of fatherhood and motherhood must have positive connotations in children’s minds. Then, holy, chaste, and filial fear will be more possible for them.

It is a certain truth of the spiritual life that we can pray for those spiritual goods that we need. A suggested prayer for the Gift of Fear of the Lord comes from the Psalms:

Pierce thou my flesh with thy fear: for I am afraid of thy judgments” (Ps. 118:120).