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Last week, the feast of the Holy Rosary, I mentioned a well known passage from the book of Ecclesiasticus that is often used in Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope.” At the time I quoted it, I was thinking more about the love of our Lady, and the hope which we gain from association with her. Her reference to herself as “the mother of ... fear” struck me as being a little odd, but then I didn’t have time then to think much about it.
But, coincidentally, this morning’s Gospel contains the same word, “fear,” which prompted a little more thought. Today, the paralytic man was told to “take courage,” or to “be of good heart” (depending upon the translation you read); essentially, he was told not to be afraid any longer. In this same Gospel, at the end, we read that the crowds “were struck with fear, and glorified God who had given such power to men.” What exactly is this fear that the Scriptures are talking about?
Fear is, first of all, a human emotion. There are irrational fears: the fear of black cats, the fear of the number thirteen, the fear of open spaces, the fear of touching any one and every thing for fear of infection. Some of the irrational fears have a rational basis—bad things may befall us outside of our homes, and diseases can be contracted from other people—the irrationality comes from exaggerating the rational danger. The danger in irrational fear is that it may keep us from doing things which are useful and necessary. And since it is irrational, there may be no way to overcome it; at least not through clear thinking. Sometimes such fears can leave us like the man in today’s Gospel—paralyzed.
Fear can also be a rational thing, and a good thing for us. A person who had no fear at all would likely die at an early age. Fear rightly keeps us from stepping in front of the oncoming railroad train, keeps us out of burning buildings, keeps us from tasting poison, keeps us from foolhardy violence, gives us at least a minimal respect for authority, and causes us to plan for the future. The man without fear may fall victim to the thousands of dangers that occupy the world in which we live. And, reasonable fears can usually be overcome, or, at least, dealt with. A man can learn to deal with danger if he learns how to take the proper precautions—the danger may not go away, but it can be held to reasonable statistic.
In a number of places the Bible tells us: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” What kind of fear is this “fear of the Lord”? What else do we know about it?
In the Book of Ecclesiasticus we also read: “The fear of the Lord is honour, and glory, and gladness, and a crown of joy.”
“For the fear of the Lord is wisdom and discipline.”
“The fear of the Lord shall delight the heart, and shall give joy, and gladness, and length of days.
“With him that feareth the Lord, it shall go well in the latter end, and in the day of his death he shall be blessed.”
So, clearly, this is not some sort of servile fear—not the kind of fear that would make us want to run and hide. It is the sort of fear that made the crowd in the Gospel want to “glorify God who had given such power to men.” The Baltimore Catechism tells us that “fear of the Lord” is one of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and defines it as “the great awe and reverence for our Lord, which keep us from offending Him by sin.”
We might compare this “fear of the Lord” to the very salutary fear we have of fire. We are absolutely right to fear fire in all of its forms, taking great pains never to let it start accidentally, not even from a match that appears to be out. But if we maintain our awe and our respect for fire, it can be a great comfort—to cook our food, to warm our bodies, to chase the wild beasts, and to provide its cheery glow.
God is much the same. Provided we keep God in that “reverence and awe” of which the Catechism speaks, He will be our greatest comfort, and will see to our needs, both spiritual and material. Held in this awe, He will give us “honour, and glory, and gladness, and wisdom and discipline and joy” in this world “and the day of our death shall be blessed.”
We don’t have to look very far around us to see the terrible consequences of a world which seems totally without this “fear of the Lord.” We don’t have to look far to see sin on a magnitude that ought to frighten every civilized person. Nobody even bothers to be scandalized by petty thefts, bar-room skirmishes, minor infidelities, or verbal obscenities. Society, in its effort to eliminate the God it should fear, is now devoid of that “reverence and awe” and cares not about “offending Him by sin.” Civil society having no respect for human life, conducts wars against the innocent by air and sea, on the battlefield, in the womb and in the petri dish. Those who should be the role models of society are all too often caught with their hands where they do not belong. The Church has been no better, and, so often, the perpetrators are also those who should be the role models—priests and even bishops caught, equally, where their hands do not belong. From the very top, on down, religious and secular society seems to have lost all fear of God.
Some of this can be remedied by human action. Politicians and prelates can be removed from places of authority if we demand it loudly enough—if we refuse to support one over the other, just because he isn’t as bad as the other guy. A politician should be a “reasonable facsimile” of a statesman; a bishop should be a “reasonable facsimile” of a saint—perhaps that sounds over optimistic, but it would not be an unreasonable standard at least to strive for. And, of course, there is very little we can do to convert others without our own good example—so all of us should strive, ourselves, to have that “great awe and reverence for our Lord, which keep us from offending Him by sin.”
But like many issues of morality and public behavior, it may not be possible to depend on human effort—at least not exclusively. “Fear of the Lord,” after all, is a gift of the Holy Ghost. That it is a gift suggests that it may not exist to any great degree in those who have not received that gift from God Himself. So, like many things, the problem of re-introducing “fear of the Lord” into the modern world (ourselves included) must be solved with prayer, and penitential practice, and the frequent reception of the Sacraments.
Let us pray that Jesus Christ, who, in curing the paralytic, inspired the crowds to fear and glorify God, may inspire us and those in Church and civil society to do the same.
Finally, since our Lady is our Patroness, let us always be mindful of those beautiful words which the Church accommodates to her in many of her Masses:
She is the mother of fair love, and of knowledge, and of holy hope—and she is the mother of holy fear of the Lord. Hear what she has to say, pray to her for fear of the Lord, and be not confounded.