It is the Lord who marches before you; he will be with you and will never fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed.
Deut. 31: 8
One of the the most common injunctions in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures is “Do not fear.” Fearfulness has many causes in us, including temperament. From birth, it seems, some are more assertive and courageous and others more timid and fearful. In recent times we have even come to identify a genetic component to shyness. Although, however, our innate disposition to timidity differs, all of us know the experience of fear and anxiety and are well aware of how ,to varying degrees, our fears have limited our whole-hearted response to the call of Jesus in our lives. We all tend to circumscribe our lives within security directives that our fears and anxieties have led us to overdevelop.
In the resurrection narratives Jesus announces his presence (“It is I.”) as the reason for his disciples to cease being afraid. Moses tells the Hebrews during the Exodus event that the Lord will “be with you and will never fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed.” It is in recognizing that we are in God’s presence that we are able to live with our fears and yet do our work and fulfill our appointed tasks despite them.
For many of us our shame at being fearful prevents us from the kind of openness and humility before God that would allow God to strengthen and encourage us. The obstacle to a more courageous life, and so a fuller self-giving to others and the world, lies in our refusal to recognize and acknowledge our own fear. Often the pulsations of our early social and familial formation has communicated to us that fear is somehow a personal and moral failing, and so the very feelings of fear can evoke shame in us. The unconscious discharge of shame is withdrawal and self-protection. If driven by our reaction, we withdraw from the situation and the world rather than offer generously whatever little we may have to give. We so fear doing the wrong thing that we do nothing.
The therapy for such shame is the “form openness” of prayer. Instead of repressing our initial stirrings of fear and anxiety, we can admit and recognize them and be present to them. We can then express them to God (and if possible to others) in such a way that we open ourselves to the influx of God’s love and strength. “God, I am afraid of this situation, of what is being asked of me, so, if your will is to be done, I need your help and strength. Allow me to do all that I can and to trust that you ask no more of me than that.”
One of the great exemplars of this practice is the 17th century Carmelite lay brother, Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence lived the most simple yet most profound of spiritualities: the constant practice at each moment and in every activity of the presence of God. In his simplicity and directness he teaches a practice of prayer that is suitable for the most active of lives. For him, prayer is to stand before God always in humility and truth. It is to live in awareness of one’s experience and to turn that awareness into a dialogue with God. As Moses said, God will always be with us and will never fail or forsake us. Our problem tends to be that in certain inner experiences we hide ourselves from God, and so we “feel” as if it is God who is absent. As we might put it today, Brother Lawrence practices transparency to God at all times. It is this openness, this spirit of continuing prayer, that allows him to do what is asked of him, fully mindful of his fears and hesitancies. He does not close down and refuse the call at hand, but rather enters into the fray knowing that, if God wants something of him, God will have to make it possible in and through his own personal limitations and weakness.
That we ought to act very simply towards God, speaking frankly to Him, and asking His help in things as they occurred; in his experience, God never failed to give it.
That he had been sent lately into Burgundy to buy wine. This was a very hard job for him, as he was no good at business, and, furthermore, was lame in one leg, so that he could only get about the boat by sliding from cask to cask. However, he worried neither about this nor about his purchase; he told God that it was His business that he was on: and he found that everything went well. He had been sent into Auvergne the previous year on a like errand; he did not know how the business had been done: but done it was, and very well done.
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, trans. Donald Atwater, pp. 36-7