The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 64, No 6, Nov-Dec 2011

Theology for the Laity

Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Part II
The Fear of the Lord

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


       In our previous reflection we saw that the gifts of the Spirit are habits by which the soul gains the power to attain special perfections. We seldom think of fear as perfection, but that is because our language betrays us into imagining fear can only be associated with cowardice or trepidation.


       In our everyday lives, we experience four types of fear. The first is a "worldly fear," the apprehension that we may lose the material things that make our lives pleasant. These consist of material goods, of course, but they also include intangible goods - the honors or benefits that may come our way as a result of our education, position in society or job, wealth, privilege, or even our appearance. God, obviously, plays little part in this sort of fear, and because its object is so ignoble, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas consider it evil.

    ...worldly love is, properly speaking, the love whereby a man trusts in the world as his end... Now fear is born of love, since man fears the loss of what he loves, as Augustine states... Hence worldly fear is that which arises from worldly love as from an evil root, for which reason worldly fear is always evil. (S.T. II-II 19.4)

       When we consider the obsession with which some individuals pursue their work, to the exclusion of everything and everyone else in their lives, we can see what a great tragedy overshadows the natural and spiritual life of a person who falls under the spell of worldly fear.


       A second fear concerns God, but this is a God of anger and vengeance rather than the God of love revealed in the Scripture. This fear is named "servile" because it is the fear experienced by a slave in the presence of an intolerant and capricious master. St. Augustine observed that those who exhibit this fear shun sin, not because they love God, and not because they hate sin. Rather, because they fear God's punishment.

       St. Thomas Aquinas challenges us to make a distinction. He says that the fear in servile fear is not defective; what limits its power to ennoble us is its slave-like quality. Those who labor under servile fear may lead what appear to be outwardly virtuous lives, but until this fear is mixed with piety and liberated with true love for God, it is imperfect and, like imperfect contrition, it is based on dread of punishment rather than dread of offending God. To that extent, servile fear is sterile and ungenerous.

       Because servile fear is often linked with a crippling personal scrupulosity and spirit of harsh judgment, it is neither personally satisfying nor a source of peace or growth in the Christian community. We need only consider fictional characters like Dickens' Uriah Heep, or Francois Mauriac's Brigitte in "Woman of the Pharisees," to grasp the hypocrisy and utter emptiness of the lives of those governed by servile fear.


       A third fear is "initial" fear, the beginning of true, virtuous, Fear of the Lord, and this enables us to cooperate with the grace of our Baptism to outgrow servile fear, and to see beyond the limits placed by worldly, or material, fear. St. John tells us that love "casts out fear" (1 Jn. 4:18), so we begin our spiritual growth toward true fear when we begin our journey toward true love. This initial fear is vastly superior to either of the other sorts of fear we have considered, simply because initial fear allows God to guide and strengthen our will, but as its name suggests, it is only a beginning.

       St. Thomas Aquinas describes initial fear thus

    ...if a man turn to God...through fear of punishment, it will be servile fear; but if it be on account of committing a fault, it will be filial fear, for it becomes a child to fear offending its father. If, however, it be on account of both, it will be initial fear, which is between both these fears. (II-II, 19.2)


       In our Catholic theology, true fear, "holy" fear, is a growing sensitivity and awareness of sin. As the Holy Spirit prompts us to turn toward God with greater and greater ardor, we are simultaneously called to turn away from sin - not because we fear punishment for doing wrong, and not because we seek some reward for doing good - but because our love for God makes us more and more want to do God's will.


       In our human families, if our parents treat us with the love children deserve, we are not long in outgrowing a fear of our parents' punishment. As our love and respect for our parents increase, following their rules becomes far easier. As we grow, their instructions become less and less direct, and more and more a matter of our intuition. To be sure, fear is a part of this growth, but if we - and our parents - are truly growing in love, then our fear arises less from the threat of punishment should we make a mistake, than from an unwillingness to offend our parents by failing to carry out their instructions.

       If we continue the analogy of unspoken communication between loving parents and their children, we can see that as the Holy Spirit guides our lives, and draws us more deeply into love for our heavenly Father, we may be confident that we will progress from simply carrying out God's commands to an intuitive appreciation of God's desires. At this point our fear of God is in no way that of a slave; rather, it is "filial" fear, that of a child, dependent, loving, and obedient.

       St. Thomas writes that filial fear differs from initial fear only in degree.

    ...initial fear stands in the same relation to filial fear as imperfect to perfect charity. Now perfect and imperfect charity differ, not as to essence but as to state. Therefore we must conclude that initial fear, as we understand it... does not differ essentially from filial fear. (II-II, 19.8)


       Because Fear of the Lord is the Spirit's grace enabling us to discern what will offend God, the first effect of this gift is a growing awareness of how very sinful we are in God's eyes. As we grow in love for God, and grow more and more aware of God's immensity and goodness, we will grow correspondingly aware of how very small we are, and how very imperfect. If we look at our personal weaknesses, or the illnesses of the invalids Jesus encounters in the gospel, we see that disease and weakness are symptoms of deeper weakness that afflicts creation, as a result of sin. This should by no means cause us to withdraw from the world God has entrusted to our care, but it should remind us of the tremendous magnitude and power of sin. We must withdraw from sin, and the gift of Fear of the Lord, which increases our love for God, will increase our desire to draw back from sin and whatever might lead us to sin.


       Once we become aware of our sinfulness, we become aware of our need for repentance. Fear of the Lord reveals the weakness of our spiritual condition, but it also reveals the remedy. The gift of filial fear is a gift that refines the will, so it increases our humility, which is the capacity to see everything we have and everything we are as God's gift. The more clearly God's Spirit enables us to see ourselves as God's handiwork, the less apt we are to want to soil that effort, and the more attractive the Sacrament of Reconciliation will become.


       One promise we make in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to avoid what will lead us to sin in the future. This amendment of life is yet another result of our growth in filial fear. As the Holy Spirit enables us to grow in love for God, we realize more and more clearly that we have been created in God's image. At some point this will lead us to conclude that our actions should bear some trace of our Creator, so that we will do no harm to ourselves or one another, and so that the world may continue to feel God's healing touch through us, His creatures.

       A 20th Century writer observes

    In the sacrament of penance the gift of fear acts at is highest level of all; during and after absolution we remain under the influence of filial fear: the spirit of fear inspires our repentance, our sorrow, and, in consequence, the desire to oppose our faults and overcome them.

    St. Thomas also teaches that the gift of fear is a powerful auxiliary of the virtue of temperance. Those who, recognizing in their flesh the ever-reviving source of all their faults, truly fear God with a childlike fear, are temperate, penitent, sober, and humble. The virtue of temperance has no better auxiliary than the spirit of fear which puts us on our guard against our sinful wills.

    This gift of fear is therefore a help both to our piety which it prospers, to our hope which it strengthens, and to temperance, which it enables to rule. (H.D. Gardeil, The Holy Spirit in Christian Life, p. 15)


       Finally, the gift of Fear enables us to purify not only our relations with the world outside us, but also the world within us, and that, of course, is our own hearts. The word "heart" occurs over and over in the Scripture, a sign of how important our hearts are. Jesus tells us, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mt. 6: 21) - rather frightening words when we consider some of the things that make our hearts beat faster. We may be grateful, then, that the gift of Fear makes our hearts beat more chastely.

       Jesus also tells us "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mt. 11:29-30)


       Once again we hear an invitation to embrace the gift of filial fear. If we are to enjoy everlasting life with Christ in God's kingdom, we must allow our hearts to be transformed into images of His heart. This can happen in only one way, which is by accepting Christ's yoke. He assures us the yoke is easy, and so it is; it is, after all, His yoke. We are merely sharing it. If we accept His invitation, the gifts of the Spirit become more and more a part of our lives. They enable us to identify ourselves more and more closely with Jesus, who manifest these gifts perfectly throughout His life, and who calls us to find the pattern of our lives in His, especially in His cross.


       The gift of Fear is especially linked to the virtue of Hope, by which we trust that God will enable us to come to share His everlasting life in heaven. St. Thomas writes that the gift and the virtue are "linked together" and "complete one another," for through fear "...we dread lest we relinquish the helping hand of God." (II-II, 19.9) When one writer considers the gift of fear his words remind us of Jesus' invitation to assume His yoke. He says the gift of Fear

    ...banishes from Christian life every vestige of presumption, of self-sufficiency, of hypocrisy; it is the mother of Christian humility, that wonderful blending of confidence and trepidation in the presence of God. (Anscar Vonier, The Spirit and the Bride, p 192)

       The virtue of Hope is trust in God's mercy and promise. The gift of Fear allows us to cast ourselves altogether on God's merit, forgetting our own. And in this regard, the gift enables us to embrace a spirit of poverty, which is an excellent remedy for the material fear that can work such harm in our lives. The gift of Fear enables us to see that God is all we need. The more closely we allow the gift of Fear to identify our wills with His, the more completely we understand the immensity of Jesus' words on the mountainside, when He promised His kingdom to those who are poor in spirit.

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