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The gift of fear.

One day I recognized a police officer who often visited the high school at which I taught for many years. I immediately asked him how a particular student of mine was doing; for I knew that it was very likely that this officer would have had contact with him for years after he'd left our school, which was only a month or two into his first year. And of course, the officer only shook his head in disgust after I mentioned his name; my former student turned out to be the career criminal we all expected him to be.

What struck me about this student was that he seemed to have absolutely no fear of God. His behaviour during Mass was bizarre, to say the least. During the consecration he'd stand up, walk slowly around the chapel observing the pictures on the walls, the books on the shelves, and then as he approached the doors, he'd casually make his way out, only to wander the halls.

It didn't take long for me to learn how to teach Religion to drug dealers, professional thieves, violent bullies and teenage psychopaths; for what they all had in common was precisely a lack of the fear of God. Young criminals do not respond to the language of love and compassion. It means nothing to them, it does not move them, and those who employ it are seen as potential targets of manipulation. A very different approach is required if one is to have any chance of success with such people, one more akin to the hair-raising sound of an Evangelical preacher (Cf. Mr. 3, 7-10; 11, 20-24).

But it was during these years that I began to realize just what a gift the fear of God really is, even the very rudiments of servile fear. Some of these kids were already involved in some of the worst crimes and were committed to a criminal lifestyle, but they had no fear of divine repercussion.

The gift of fear is, at least initially, a reverent fear of the divine justice. Traditionally, it has been divided into servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear inclines a person to reject sin out of a fear of punishment, whether temporal or eternal. Filial fear, on the other hand, inclines a person to reject sin more out of a fear of offending the beloved, namely God. Indeed, the latter is higher and nobler, but the latter does not displace the former. Filial fear does not supplant servile fear. Rather, the more a person grows in the love of God--and thus filial fear--the more refined does servile fear become.

The reason is that as we grow in the knowledge of God's mercy, we grow, simultaneously in the knowledge of our own frailty and proclivity to sin, for His mercy bears upon our sins. And as we grow in an understanding of God's pure generosity, we begin to appreciate more the seriousness of sin. Joined to an awareness of our own frailty and dependency upon divine grace, we are led to pray for the gift of perseverance within a spirit of hope, which includes a spirit of fear that recognizes what we truly deserve. Indeed, the saint really fears the damage that his sins will do to himself as well as to others.

But it has become rather fashionable to redefine the 'fear of God' as an experience of 'awe.' The Hebrew word for 'fear,' however, is yare, which does not mean awe or wonder, but fear or dread. Awe describes a very different experience than that of fear. This past month I stood before a number of 17th-century paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The experience was one of awe and intense wonder, not fear. Fear is an entirely different emotion, one that bears upon an impending evil that is judged to be insurmountable.

Moreover, awe is not a starting point or a beginning, but a conclusion, an end, a quality that is acquired after a long period of labour. A person does not begin a course in Art or Music Appreciation with a fully developed sense of awe and wonder, but acquires an appreciation of a particular style of music or period of art after spending much time studying it and its place within history. How much more is awe at the divine majesty a conclusion, an end, a perfection acquired after many years of reflecting on the mystery of God's perfections, such as His omniscience, omnipotence, and His universal providence?

Fear, on the other hand, is a beginning: "The fear (yare) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7). The object of this fear is precisely the divine anger: "Who knows the fury of your anger or your indignation toward those who should fear (yare) you" (Ps. 90:11). Indeed, the fear of the Lord is a kind of reverence, but such reverence cannot be understood except in light of fear. The more we reverence something, the more we fear losing it. The more a person reverences his salvation, the more he will fear losing it (servile fear), and the more a person reverences God, the more he will fear offending Him (filial fear).

Awe towards God is not the beginning of wisdom, but a sign of wisdom acquired. But fear is the beginning of decisions that are wise and life-giving. Four years ago my family doctor noticed that I had low iron. He feared that something might be wrong, and so he sent me for further testing. The doctor he sent me to, however, was much less fearful that low iron was a sign of impending disaster. In fact, he explicitly indicated that my family doctor was 'over-reacting.' So, instead of scheduling me for a rather uncomfortable colonoscopy, he sent me to be tested for celiac disease, and then sent me off to enjoy my summer holidays, free from fear and full of confidence that all was well with my health and future.

But after the results of the test came back negative, he decided to do the colonoscopy for which I was originally sent. Even while I was lying on the operating table, ready to be sedated, he reiterated his conviction that what he was about to do was in all probability a waste of time and overly cautious, but necessary to relieve my family doctor of his unfounded fears.

After it was all over, though, this rather cocky physician had the countenance of a man who had just seen a ghost. He had found the tumor that was causing the depletion of iron, and two weeks later I was operated on and afterwards treated with chemotherapy. I am only alive because one doctor made room in his life for fear and was led, by that very fear, to make a very wise decision. The other doctor lacked a healthy sense of his own limitations and a corresponding fear before the larger mystery of nature and human pathology. Such confidence might appear to be more positive, but it is dangerous and shows evidence of a lesser reverence for the value of individual human life.

Similarly, to sweeten the harder points of the Gospel might appear more positive and inviting, but such theology is dangerous and negligent, like the medical malpractice of risking the life of a patient for the sake of making him feel better for the moment. As the Lord said to Ezekiel: "If I say to the wicked man, You shall surely die; and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his wicked conduct so that he may live: that wicked man shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death" (Ez. 3:18).

Doug McManaman teaches the philosophy of religion at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, ON.
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Author:McManaman, Doug
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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