In last week’s column I mentioned that I was concerned that occasionally in silent prayer I have a feeling that might be a kind of emotional fear of God. I wondered if it was really fear or just awe, amazement and wonder at God’s proximity.
Rereading Father Ron Rolheiser’s insights into what I would describe as “holy fear” has helped me understand what might be going on in my prayer life.
In “Wrestling with God” (New York: Image, 2018, pp. 198, $22.00), Father Rolheiser offers beautiful insights into what he refers to as a fear that is part of the anatomy of love. By that he means a fear that we will not be faithful to what love asks of us. Rolheiser stresses that this is not fear of God but rather fear that we will not respond to the love that God showers on us. Pointing out that the Gospels are meant to inspire that kind of fear, that God is Love, not someone to be feared, Rolheiser makes note of what I never noticed, namely that virtually every theophany in the scriptures (a scene in which God appears) begins with the words: “Do not be afraid!”
Father Rolheiser writes the following:
“John of the Cross teaches that in any long-term friendship the important things eventually begin to happen under the surface. Think of casual conversation as the tip of an iceberg. The real power is moving along underneath the waters. Togetherness, ease with each other, comfort, and the sense of being at home are what we give each other then.
“That’s also true for our relationship with God. God made us to be human, and God wants us, with all of our wandering weaknesses, to be human in his presence, with ease, with comfort, and with the feeling that we are at home.
“Our fear of God can be reverence or timidity; the former is healthy, the latter is neurotic.”(p. 70)
Reflecting on long close relationships that I have, I marvel at the insights of St. John of the Cross and Rolheiser. It is interesting that in any close relationships that I have, my friend and I never talk about the relationship. Not that we couldn’t. We could, probably at great length, but there does not seem to be any need to talk about the friendship. Could it be that we are enjoying one another’s presence so much that to talk about the relationship would seem like an unnecessary interruption?
Recently I had a conversation with a friend, a woman who had recently lost her mother. She was deeply concerned that her mother, who had stopped the practice of her Catholic faith, might not be with God. I tried to encourage her by pointing out that God’s love and mercy can wipe out any sins. I encouraged my friend to realize that no matter how we imagine God’s mercy and love, we can never go deeply enough to fully appreciate how powerful God’s mercy and love are. As Pope Francis has said frequently, God’s name is Mercy. There is nothing that any of us can do that will cause God to stop loving us. If we try to imagine what we think of as the worst possible sin, that sin is not stronger than God’s love and mercy.
In “Wrestling with God,” Father Rolheiser offers a wonderful anecdote that I think might help people to appreciate God’s mercy. A number of years ago he had attended the wake of a young man who died tragically in a car accident. He was partying pretty hard and was breaking just about every commandment before he died. Rolheiser writes the following:
“But everyone who knew him also knew of his essential goodness and his wonderful heart. There wasn’t an ounce of malice in him, and heaven would forever be a less colorful and more impoverished place if he weren’t there. At the reception following the church service , one of his aunts said to me, ‘He was such a good person, if I were running the gates of heaven, I would certainly let him in.’ I assured her that no doubt God felt the same way, given that God’s understanding and forgiveness infinitely surpass our own.”(p.77)
There was a time in my life, actually not so long ago, when I would have abruptly criticized Rolheiser’s comment as revealing a superficial sentimentality. What about God’s justice? Now I think the comment comes from a profound appreciation of God’s love and mercy.
Writing about God’s love and mercy, a line from Thomas Merton’s poem “The Tears of the Blind Lions” has come into my mind: “When those who love God try to write about him their words are like blind lions looking for oases in the desert.”
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.