Faith & Thought

Fear of God and the Anatomy of Love

When I think about my ideas or images of God, I find them very beautiful and attractive. These ideas I have learned from the scriptures and from the very best Catholic theology. I believe that I could spend the remainder of my life meditating on the meaning and mystery of God, Whom I believe in, and I could always go deeper because there is an infinite depth to the Infinite Love Who is God. 

I believe with St. Thomas Aquinas that while we can speak truthfully about God, it is impossible to speak clearly about God. 

The reason we cannot speak clearly about God is that God is infinite, unlimited. When we try to apply human concepts to God none of those limited concepts can adequately describe Unlimited Being. I also like Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel’s statement that when we talk about God, it is not God about whom we are speaking. 

I think Marcel was calling attention to our tendency to shrink God to some being we can understand completely. 

In trying to articulate how I think of God, I would say that God is Pure Self-Gift; God is Love that is always giving. Even writing these words I feel inspired and grateful. 

However, though I am pleased, excited and challenged by the view I have of God, there is something else about my relationship with God that has occurred to me in recent weeks. At times when I am engaging in silent prayer, the thought has occurred to me that I may be experiencing a fear of God. 

What I am experiencing seems to be simultaneously the nearness of God but also a fear of God. Is it a fear of God or is it a sense of wonder, a sense of awe, a sense that this experience is almost too good to be true? 

Is it some emotional remnant from a period in my life when I experienced scrupulosity? Re-reading Father Ron Rolheiser’s “Wrestling with God: Finding Hope and Meaning in Our Daily Struggles to Be Human” (New York: Image, 2018, pp.198, $22.00), I found some insights that I think will help me better understand what I might be experiencing. 

Rolheiser writes the following: 

“Unless you are a full saint or a mystic, you will always live with some fear of death and the afterlife. That’s simply part of being human. But we can, and must, move beyond our fear of God.”(p. 67) 

He confessed that as a child he had many fears: fears of snakes, murderers and the dark, but as his imagination matured he was able to block out many of those fears. He admits that he did not so easily overcome his fear of death, his fear of the afterlife and his fear of God. 

Referring to these three fears as the last fears to be exorcised, Rolheiser points out that Jesus himself trembled in fear before death, before the unknown that he faced in death, but that he did not tremble in fear before God. Jesus did the opposite. He handed himself over in love. He was able to place his trust in his Father, and that freed him to embrace a terrible death with grace and forgiveness. Jesus’ death changed the meaning of death. 

Rolheiser offers the following view of why we need never tremble in fear before God: 

“But trust in God does include a healthy fear because one fear, properly understood, is part of the anatomy of love. The scriptures say that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. But that fear, a healthy fear, must be understood as a reverence, a loving awe, a love that fears disappointing. Healthy fear is love’s fear, a fear of betraying, of not being faithful to what love asks of us in return for its gratuity. We aren’t afraid of someone we trust, fearing that he or she will suddenly turn arbitrary, unfair, cruel, incomprehensible, vicious, unloving. Rather we are afraid about how worthy we are of the trust that is given to us, not least from God.” (p. 68) 

I think that the next time I think I might be experiencing an unhealthy experience of fear while I am praying, I will immediately pause and focus my prayer on that experience. 

I suspect that this is probably the best response to the experience. I suppose that the meaning of the experience might become more clear to me and also my prayerful focus on the experience might actually change the meaning of the experience. I cannot imagine that trusting in God’s love would ever be a mistake. 

I suspect, indeed I believe, the Holy Spirit often changes what presents as a problem into a blessing. 

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.