On fear

Saint John Paul II, of increasingly beloved memory, stressed so often these two angelic words, scattered throughout the Scriptures: “Fear not.” They are a counterpoint to another oft-encountered phrase: “Fear God.” I wrote “angelic” in the sense that, when not spoken by Our Lord, they are most likely to be spoken by angels, as for instance ad pastores, “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy.”

To the glib reader — and let me include myself, as I have discovered myself to be with the passing of the years — there would be some paradox here. To the contemporary, post-Christian reader, it is a flat contradiction. How can one be told not to fear, when one has been told to fear? The best he might gloss would be, “Fear this, and not that.” Which as so often with these godless folk, makes an excellent beginning.

In Thomas Aquinas, his Summa Theologica — II-II, beginning at questio 125, if you must know — the whole matter is dealt with. (Someone should perhaps bring it to the attention of Donald Trump.)

The Angelic Doctor deals with fear itself; whether and in what circumstances it might be a sin, or could even rise to a mortal sin; or under other circumstances might excuse from sin; whether it is necessarily contrary to fortitude; whether fearlessness is a sin; whether fearlessness might be opposed to fortitude; and so forth, into a rounder consideration of daring, bravery, and the virtue of fortitude considered in its several aspects or parts or as he puts it, “modes” — finally relating to the theological virtue of Hope. Let the serious reader found his contemplation on that, rather than this.

As I know from email, many of my readers are afraid. Few feel bound to exhibit the virtue of fortitude; and I should almost say that their fear of fearlessness is greater than their fear of fear. They are a gentle lot, compared at least to me. Also, predominantly, Christian.

My Czech buddies, with whom I used to drink, had as their motto: “If God is with us, who can be against us?” This might sound brash and arrogant, to someone who knows not Czechs; in fact they were the opposite of aggressive. It struck me that this saying from Saint Paul perfectly balances the two propositions: to fear not, and to fear God.

A paradox exists only on the surface. The key to the rational explanation of this one passes back, I think, from Aquinas through Aristotle even to Plato’s Socrates. It is that sin is worse than punishment; that for the man who has done wrong, being discovered, and being punished for what he has done, is in the happiest sense fortuitous. He should want to turn himself in, as it were; he should want to pay and be cleansed of evil-doing.

The two little words, “fear not,” themselves contain a great deal of information, once we know they are of God. They address us personally. They show that God knows our hearts: that when we fear, we fear for ourselves and for our own; that this is natural, when something is presented that makes us afraid. On the contrary, to be free of any temptation to fear, is unnatural. This latter is not fortitude, which requires some moral starch; the psychopath is fearless.

If we are not to fear externals — things like loss and pain and death — we will need the help of angels. As we see from Scripture, the angels come; and too, perhaps, from personal experience, the help arrives when it is meekly called for. (“Lord, get me through this!”) They are not merely an instruction, not to fear. They are a breath that fills us.

The expression, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” is, by contrast, pagan, and fatuous. It is an expression of bravado, and of the stoicism that is so often sold today, not as holiness but as an alternative to it. The hospitals and nursing homes, I have found, are full of old stoics breaking down, because the human spine can take only so much pressure, before it snaps. And the whimpering of stoics is especially unpleasant to the ear.

Of course we have more to fear than fear itself: fear of bombs and bullets is perfectly rational, and fully human; as is, too, the fear of a cancer, or of a trick heart, or in old age of an internal infection that may verily suddenly turn us into another of those corpses. The brave face holds up only until we panic. Fear of hanging is also quite reasonable in a man: the greater if he is close enough to God, to realize that Hell may yawn before him.

But we have, today, little fear of Hell. As I like to quote Czeslaw Milosz: “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death: the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.”

And yet, a personal fear that one may go to Hell, while admirable in some cases, may in others be much closer to a neurosis. (I think of an old New Yorker cartoon, of a businessman in a suit, on the clouds before Saint Peter. “No, no,” Saint Peter is saying, “that wasn’t a sin either. You poor man, you must have worried yourself to death!”)

For the proper fear of God consists not in the fear of punishment, but in fear of the sin that deserves it.

Or at least this is the case, in my callow understanding: that it is a “fear of falling,” out of God’s grace. A fear, in that sense, of the Eye of God, turned upon our worthless and disobedient behaviour. A fear and a horror of what we, like Adam, have done with the very gift of our life, displeasing to our Maker. It is, perhaps, properly considered, the most “objective” fear there can be, freeing us as it does from all our cheap “subjective” judgements.


A professor friend reports:

“I saw something yesterday that I thought you might appreciate. Daughter Margaret and I were walking back from ‘Dollarama’ on Vaughan Road last night, where we had been acquiring some school supplies, and we passed a police cruiser.  Climbing out of it (not being forced into it) was a youngish woman, ‘rebelliously’ dressed, with whom it seems the coppers had wanted a word.  They thanked her and sent her on her way.

“She walked along directly in front of us as we crossed St Clair Avenue. Right at the crossing is a shop called ‘Manila Foods’, which often has a sidewalk display of fruits and vegetables. The woman walked to the display and deftly scooped up a banana with her hands hidden by her bag. Then she walked on.

“I was contemplating whether I ought to tell her she had been observed, or just go back to the shop and reimburse them for the theft. But when we came to the next corner, she suddenly spun round, muttering, ‘Aw, shit!’

“She walked back to the counter, replaced the banana, and then turned back round again.

“It took me a moment to realize what had happened: she had just reached St Alphonsus Church at the corner of Vaughan and St Clair, and evidently she felt that she could not walk past it while carrying stolen goods. The last I saw of her, she was climbing the steps of the church and sitting down by the door.

“Perhaps Saint Alphonsus the Casuist was explaining to her that stealing wouldn’t ultimately be a satisfying way to get back at Toronto’s Finest.”