Fear took hold of everyone. They gave glory to God. They said, “A great prophet has been raised up among us!” and “God has visited his people!”
Luke 7: 16
In today’s gospel we read of the raising from the dead of the only son of the widow of Nain. The people who witness this action of Jesus, this profound demonstration of the closeness and compassion of God who “has visited his people,” are moved to give God glory, but they are moved so by “fear.” “Fear took hold of everyone.”
What is the spiritual role of fear in our lives? How is it that to be truly and distinctively human, we need to integrate into our awareness a proper sense of fear? The gospel today suggests that somehow to be human means that it may often be some type of fear that moves us to glorify God, to recognize and to live the moments of our lives in light of our dependence on God.
In the gospel today, Jesus is moved with compassion at the suffering of this widowed woman who has lost her only son. That compassion leads him to return her son to life and to her. It is the victory of love over loneliness and life over death that pervades this scene. So, how is it that fear takes hold of those who are witnesses? Is it possible that we fear life as much as death and love as much as loneliness? The gospel story today illustrates for us a telling aspect of our human condition, of our call to reformation and transformation. There is, in the human experience, a hurdle to deeper love and life that we must jump over. That hurdle is fear.
Each of us has many fears in life, and those fears have about them elements both common and different. Whatever the particular evocations are in each of us, however, what all of our fears have in common is that we fear that which we feel is too much for us. We are instinctively made to fight or to flee those things that we take to be threatening to us. It is suggested by some that we in our age suffer from so much anxiety, in part at least, because those concrete objects of fear that existed when we lived more intimately as part of nature are now missing from our lives. We have not emotionally evolved to a place where we can distinguish between threats to our lives and the ordinary worries of everyday life. Our bodies gear up to fight or flee from a difficult personal or business encounter as if the other were a wild tiger threatening our survival. In other words, we instinctively misread the nature and level of the threat.
Yet, be the reaction appropriate or inappropriate, we are reacting to something that we see as a threat to our life, as we know it. Our typical consciousness always has about it a significant level of denial of reality. From our birth, we are thrust into a world that is in so many ways too much for us. And so we develop a way of seeing things that filters out those truths which would make daily life too threatening and fearful. For all of our self-assurance, each of us lives with a kind of subliminal fear of the truth that in its totality life is more than we can adequately deal with. The late psychiatrist and psychotherapy supervisor Elvin Semrad once said that “The client is mad, sad, or afraid. Everything else is superficial.” What he was speaking of was this depth dimension in us which is always somewhat evading our fear of a world that is more than we can manage on our own.
In the pre-transcendent levels of our personality, we are always “working on” a world that we have, to varying degrees, reduced to manageable size. As spirit, however, in our transcendent potencies, we are able to grasp reality as a whole, or perhaps better put, we are a capacity to be grasped, to know ourselves as a participant in the Mystery of Reality as it is. The transition from pre-transcendent to transcendent awareness, however, will always require a certain “leap” over the hurdle of fear.
Today geologists speak of the Age of the Anthropocene, the Age of the Humans. This is the “relatively modern” development by which human activity has become the dominant influence on the climate and environment of earth. It now seems to be the case that our activity as human beings is not a response to the “real” as it exists outside of our ability to manipulate and control it, but rather our activity has become the measure and the determinant in the shape of our global environment. It is an age in which our human models are not subject to the truth of a cosmic reality but rather in which we impose our partial human models as determinative on the cosmos. Somewhere along the line, we ceased as a species to disciple to our spiritual and transcendent reality our pre-transcendent capacities to manage and dominate. Our knowledge and technology ceased to be responsible to and for the truth and the “laws” of the cosmos.
In light of today’s gospel we cannot help but wonder if where we and our planet have found ourselves, at this historical moment, is not due to our repression of the right kind of fear, or as St. Paul puts it, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12) There is a fear that can paralyze us, but there is also that fear and trembling that allows our work to be God’s work in us, work that fulfills God’s purpose. Once we leap over the hurdle of fear that our body and ego have constructed against the Mystery, that work of God in us actually becomes an act of love. How different our work when it is doing what is given to us to be done.
Yet, our way to know this kind of love is to first face the fear of our own smallness. We must know ourselves in our “ordinariness” before we are able to do the work that fulfills God’s purpose rather than a work that consists of a kind of busyness to cover our fear of the Mystery. The arrogance which pervades our public life is but a cover for our fear. This is precisely why a politics of fear and resentment is effective. The more we are afraid the more belligerent and self-centered we become. We give ourselves over to the fruitless effort to make ourselves safe from reality, from the world as it truly is. What has distinguished the Age of the Anthropocene is our refusal as a human race to know our place in the world. We have come to believe that we can make the entire cosmos conform to our need for security and dominance, that we can “be as gods” and re-create all in our image and likeness. And all because we are afraid!
Recently a friend of mine related an incident that speaks to this dynamic at a personal level. He was spending time with his mother at her home. He had no access to an automobile, and so he was walking significant distances to the store, to church, and the like. When he returned home after one of these trips, his mother said to him that he shouldn’t walk so far or be gone so long because she was worried about him. In return he asked her, “Mom, what would you do if you weren’t worrying?” If we were not “worrying” about this and that, where would our consciousness be? If we were not constantly busying ourselves with one thing after another, what would be our mode of presence in and to the world. We no longer need to fight or flee tigers, yet we spend our time and mental energy running away from our own consciousness of who we really are and what is our right place in the world. If we stopped worrying, if we stopped being so busy and distracted, would we know the kind of fear which, when faced, becomes love and responsibility?
The spiritual traditions constantly speak to our fears of life and love and living. They remind us that “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” As Julian of Norwich reminds us, “God made us; God loves us; God keeps us.” It takes faith and courage to be fully and distinctively human, to face the fears that we have and create so that they may lead us to know our true place and to do our work for the world in love.
Of what avail this restless, hurrying activity?
This heavy weight of earthly duties?
God’s purposes stand firm,
And thou, His little one,
Needest one thing alone:
Trust in His power, and will, to meet thy need.
Thy burden resteth safe on Him,
And thou, His little one,
Mayst play securely at His side.
This is the sum and substance of all:
God loveth thee,
God beareth all thy care.