FROM FEAR TO AWE
Sean Coghlan S.J.
A few years ago I asked a woman why she had become a Catholic. She laughed and told me that as a young girl she was "afraid of everything". She was afraid of ghosts and of the dark. She was even afraid of walking down the street in the middle of the day. A school friend told her that she had better become a Catholic since Catholics are afraid of nothing! She become a Catholic and found that what her friend said was true.
Recently I read about an old village headman in New Guinea. He was very grateful for baptism. In the old days the villagers were paralysed by the fear of devils and evil spirits. "Now," he said "we don't fear anymore: We are free because we are God's children."
Most of us know fear. In an article "Angels at Easter" the editor of JIVAN, an Indian Jesuit magazine, referred to a "nameless dread that grows in the soul and cannot be unmasked". Such fear is irrational but when we suffer from it, it seems very real. More understandably we fear the future and sickness. We fear losing the people we love.
Fear can be good, useful and, even, necessary. Reasonable, justifiable fear is a painful emotion caused by impending danger or evil. A famous racing driver said, in answer to a question, that he did experience fear when he was driving. He added that, if he felt he was losing his sense of fear, he would retire, because fear warned him when he was reaching the limits of his ability.
Fear then can be good, but it can be bad and destructive too. Good or bad it has to be kept in control.
There is another kind of fear which can blight our lives. It isn't an irrational fear and so cannot be got rid of by reflection or counselling. This fear is very real and is imposed on us by unfortunate circumstances which are, at least temporarily, beyond our control. It is a fear inspired by a cruel, unjust arbitrary person who has some power or authority over us. Such a person may be a mad tyrant or dictator at the top of the scale or nearer the bottom a bullying, authoritarian parent, an abusive spouse or a cold, demanding boss. Such fear has no saving grace. The most we can hope for of this fear is to be able to bear it until we can rid ourselves of it as quickly, efficiently and ethically as possible.
As, Christians, though, we face a problem. We arc told, and very rightly so, that we should fear God. Fear God! But! Suppose! As I said, there is a problem, but, rather than making all kinds of complicated distinctions about the fear we owe to God it might be more useful to introduce the word, awe. Awe is a kind of fear, inspired by reverence and respect in face of the fascinating beauty of something or someone good or helpful.
Maybe you have felt awe when you were deeply moved by a piece of music
and wondered how a presumably limited human being like yourself could produce something so nearly perfect. Perhaps you have walked in awe on a magical night, cloudless with the myriad stars all around you down to the very horizon. I did one sharp, frosty November not far from the Bog of Allen. once, too, I took the "Maid of the Mist" up to the foot of Niagara Falls. The immense power of the water pouring over the falls filled me with a wild joy. And, yet, after some time I began to long for the boat to turn away from the falls lest the might of the falling river would rob me of my soul, of my personhood.
In "The Wind In The Willows" Kenneth Grahame relates how "Rat" and "Mole" had an experience of something like the divine as dawn broke over their beloved river. I don't know how Grahame managed to learn "rat-speak" or "mole-speak" so well and I'm not sure if his God is the God of the Bible. However his words are beautiful and we can use them in the good cause of describing what awe before God might be like.
"Rat!" he (Mole) found breath to whisper, shaking, "Are you afraid?" "Afraid?" murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. "Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet - and yet - O, Mole, I am afraid! "
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their, heads and did worship.
When Jesus told Peter and his co-workers to throw their net into the sea after their night of fruitless labour, the net filled with fish. Peter dropped on his knees before Jesus saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" But his fear did not paralyse him. He followed Jesus, worked for him and died for him. Perhaps his fear had turned to awe.
The climax of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is when I stand in the presence of God our Lord and of all his angels and saints who intercede for me. In gratitude for all I have received from him I offer myself totally to him so that in all things I may love and serve the Divine Majesty. This, after earlier in the Exercises I have stood in his presence, amazed that I had not been buried in hell for all my sins.
Awe is good, holy, true and helpful. It may make me feel small, but it fills me with hope, joy and strength. It has nothing to do with an inferiority complex or irrational guilt or slavish fear. It has everything to do with reality and optimism. By awe we are led upwards to love. "The more love possesses us, the less we fear, the more we grow in self-confidence, the more we give out vibrations of goodness - a nurturing. healing, inspiring, protecting presence." So wrote the editor of JIVAN to finish "Angels at Easter''.
Standing in awe before God, we ascend in one smooth, continuous movement to love. Is there any room at all for fear? Yes, indeed. Faced with such awesome goodness and loveliness, we could well fear the possibility of a disastrous shipwreck, the loss of that very goodness and loveliness through some mad and arrogant charting of our own life's passage.