Part III: Gift of the Holy Spirit

To be honest, I hadn’t planned on writing a third part to this article. That is until I felt the strong insistence of the Holy Spirit.

In the first place, we began our triduum of renewal last night, and our preacher chose Luke 12,35-38 as the passage for our first meditation. All right, I thought, feeling smugly. Good thing I’ve been reflecting on this passage lately. I evidently didn’t get the message, because today, in the Office of Readings, the Church proposes a passage from St Hilary of Poitiers on Fear of the Lord. I am not kidding, I did not know this beforehand. In fact, it is nice to know that the saints back up what you write. But seriously, St Hilary puts it much more eloquently than I could, and I have included the text below; it is definitely worth taking a look.

All this to say that I think Our Lord wants us to realize that in the end, the Fear of the Lord is a gift, and I think the Holy Spirit is trying to give it to me:  it “make[s] the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God… If children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” (CCC 1831)

Let this gift enable us to follow his path, which leads to the fullness of life.

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From a treatise on the psalms by Saint Hilary of Poitiers
The meaning of “the fear of the Lord”
Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways. Notice that when Scripture speaks of the fear of the Lord it does not leave the phrase in isolation, as if it were a complete summary of faith. No, many things are added to it, or are presupposed by it. From these we may learn its meaning and excellence. In the book of Proverbs Solomon tells us: If you cry out for wisdom and raise your voice for understanding, if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord. We see here the difficult journey we must undertake before we can arrive at the fear of the Lord.
  We must begin by crying out for wisdom. We must hand over to our intellect the duty of making every decision. We must look for wisdom and search for it. Then we must understand the fear of the Lord.
  “Fear” is not to be taken in the sense that common usage gives it. Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encountering a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.
  But of the fear of the Lord this is what is written: Come, my children, listen to me, I shall teach you the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord has then to be learned because it can be taught. It does not lie in terror, but in something that can be taught. It does not arise from the fearfulness of our nature; it has to be acquired by obedience to the commandments, by holiness of life and by knowledge of the truth.
  For us the fear of God consists wholly in love, and perfect love of God brings our fear of him to its perfection. Our love for God is entrusted with its own responsibility: to observe his counsels, to obey his laws, to trust his promises. Let us hear what Scripture says: And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you except to fear the Lord your God and walk in his ways and love him and keep his commandments with your whole heart and your whole soul, so that it may be well for you?
  The ways of the Lord are many, though he is himself the way. When he speaks of himself he calls himself the way and shows us the reason why he called himself the way: No one can come to the Father except through me.
  We must ask for these many ways, we must travel along these many ways, to find the one that is good. That is, we shall find the one way of eternal life through the guidance of many teachers. These ways are found in the law, in the prophets, in the gospels, in the writings of the apostles, in the different good works by which we fulfil the commandments. Blessed are those who walk these ways in the fear of the Lord.

Part II: Fear and Wisdom

It would be foolish for us to try to come to love God as an equal. Not only are we so far from his perfect love, but considering his transcendence and mystery fill us with awe and reverence. It is easy for us to get tired of working to follow his law…to get tired of getting up, clearing the dust, and starting over after we fall. Why doesn’t God show us his face? That would be enough, then we would be sure, and we could give everything to follow him.

Consider this. What if he were so beautiful that one single glimpse of his face would set our hearts on fire forever. We would be helpless, smitten; we would no longer even think twice before rejecting a temptation. But funny enough, if everything was so clear, there would be no love: our option for God would be a kneejerk reaction to follow the most beautiful fulfillment of all desire.

So he has preferred to remain hidden—though not completely. Little by little, he has revealed himself. Those who have ears ought to hear. And those who love him heed his word.

Fear of the Lord is a realistic way of life. You must stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect…happy the servant if his master’s arrival finds him at his employment. It is worth keeping sober vigil, maintaining a ready alertness. Sure, this will keep us on our toes to avoid sin—but it will also help us to enjoy life more. In fact this is central to the Gospel Message: There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom (Luke 12,32). Christ is not afraid of anyone here, but he does have a filial sense of wishing to always render due respect and love to his Father.

That is what makes fear of the Lord a gift of the Holy Spirit. St Thomas: Thereby [by the gift of fear of the Lord] we revere God, and avoid separating ourselves from him (II-II q19, a9, co.). From servile fear we have come to recognize him as Father; this has led us to a sense of sobriety and vigilance in this life, which directs us towards ascesis and a life detached from excessive pleasure seeking and wordliness—not because we are afraid of sinning, but because now we have set out on the path of wisdom, of attention to God and his ways, in order to be ready for the moment when he calls us to be with him at last.

Fear of the Fear of the Lord

It’s possible that we could grow accustomed to the newfound freedom of the life of grace, to the point of downplaying the fear of the Lord. For the past few days, a group of priests has been performing their yearly spiritual exercises here—the upshot being that during our meals, instead of Christopher Duggan’s History of Italy, we are reading passages from René Voillaume about the spiritual life. At any rate, around the third day, the meditations drifted towards the theme of death, and how our death is likely to be how we have lived. That we ought to maintain a healthy fear of God in our lives. I admit, the theme causes no little squirming on the part of many, myself included. And yet, there are those who would say the fear of the Lord is overrated: why do they have to try to frighten us with these things—why not let us learn to love God for who he is, rather than out of fear?

It is true, at the end of the day, we must love God not out of fear, but out of love. But with all the sin and punishment talk of Lent, perhaps we ought to re-examine our understanding of fear.

The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. (Proverbs 9,10) Is God strongarming us into taking up his path and learning his way? We don’t always understand why God asks us certain things (the Ten Commandments, moral precepts of the Church, etc) but we certainly understand the consequences of not living them. So should we just blindly submit to God lest we be condemned?

First of all, not all fear is bad. St Thomas Aquinas speaks chiefly about two types of fear (II-II q19): servile fear vs. filial fear. Servile fear is a fear that shrinks from punishment—even when due. Filial fear is still fear, it too shrinks from evil. But filial fear shrinks from the evil of fault—i.e. fault committed against someone else.

It is correct to fear the evil of punishment. The whole point of punishment is to correct a fault. Cops slap parking fines to keep us from blocking fire hydrants (and not only to fill a weekly quota). And funny enough, it usually only takes one fine to remind us for the rest of our lives never to park in front of the yellow lines.

So this first fear is not ignoble—it is good, and directs us to avoid the evil of punishment. Filial fear, on the other hand, directs us to avoid offending someone—for the sake of rendering that person due respect.

It is in this sense that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. At first sight, we acknowledge him as he-who-sets-the-standards, and he-who-will-not-be-happy-if-we-don’t-keep-his-rules. That initial, servile fear of punishment gives us pause, and makes us think twice before committing another sin.

But we can never consider fear of the Lord without the full picture of who the Lord really is: mercy in person. Once we experience his mercy in confession, we recognize his patient love; we recognize that his anger (or our servile fear of punishment) is not the last word. He is our Father, and we are his people, the sheep of his flock.

Now with a deeper understanding and respect for who God really is, our approach is different. Now I avoid sin not merely to avoid paying the price, but because I am grateful to God, and I love him; and I want my life to reflect that gratitude to him with all my heart.

(Part II tomorrow…)

Christian Mercy

It has been said that after the French Revolution, a convict released on parole journeyed the countryside in search of a new beginning. Being an ex-con, naturally, led to complications in this search, and he wound up at the gates of a simple prelate, who agreed to host him for the night. The convict, as is well known, takes advantage of the bishop’s generosity: rising early before dawn, he makes off with the bishop’s silver; his escape however is foiled by the local gendarmerie, who present the thief to the bishop for recognition. The bishop, without missing a beat, covers for his conniving guest: my friend, you forgot to take the candlestics as well.

I think Victor Hugo illustrates something of the challenge of today’s Gospel: be merciful, as your Father is merciful.

Perhaps it is easy for us to be merciful when we have the upper hand: if someone comes begging for forgiveness, it becomes a show–of magnanimity, but a show nonetheless–that we are in some way better than that person. One thinks perhaps of the graceful monarchs, who, moments before the execution of a criminal, would issue their royal pardon, thus leaving a lasting impression of benevolence upon the pleading souls.

But if this was all that Christ was teaching us here, why does he phrase it as he did? Why not be civil, as a well-behaved adult is civil or be nice, because no one likes an ogre. Be merciful, because the proper function of society demands it; because you should act only on that maxim which would be desirable as a universal law…

Be merciful as your Father is merciful.

That, of course is how this passage ties in with the message of Lent: how merciful is our Father! It’s not that our faults are insignificant to an infinite God; we have indeed deeply wounded the ties that bind us to him. Yet he still holds out his hand, even bloodied by the nails; even unto his enemies.

So if this measure is measured out to us, our mercy must become much more profound than a mere gesture. Christ today invites us to re-examine our mercy: how deeply do I forgive those who offend me? Do I pray for them, or allow my forgiveness to become a gesture of winning the upper hand? The forgiving bishop not only forgave Jean Valjean’s theft, he sought an excuse for him, and even gave away the last of his treasure, in the hopes that Valjean would be able to start anew.

The spirit which he sent to live in us wants us for himself alone (Js. 4,5). We are God’s own, let us not be afraid to be like our Father. Let our hearts be channels of God’s mercy, knowing that we have been forgiven much, let us express our thanks by being channels of God’s mercy to all.

Benedict’s Vision: Update

It certainly wasn’t a confirmation of my earlier post, but in some way, I think Pope Benedict’s final Sunday Angelus address yesterday did illustrate that above all, he is responding to a call: “The Lord is calling me to ‘climb the mountain’, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation…” That is, before political or bureaucratic practicalities, the Pope’s decision comes principally from his discernment in prayer.

Perhaps it is a lesson we all could learn. Perhaps it is a stronger teaching than what his final encyclical would have shown us.

(Translation via news.va http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-benedict-xvis-farewell-angelus-i-will-never-a)

Benedict’s Vision of Faith: A New Theory Regarding His Retirement

Here in Rome, everyone has a theory about why Pope Benedict will be leaving office in less than a week. While many people theorize about the ungovernable inner tensions of the Curia Romana, I have preferred to steer clear of political theories (we get enough Italian politics on the Rai’s nightly newscast). The thought came to me yesterday as I read an article about Benedict’s unwritten encyclical (http://www.osservatoreromano.va/portal/dt?JSPTabContainer.setSelected=JSPTabContainer%2FDetail&last=false=&path=/news/cultura/2013/042q13-L-enciclica-non-scritta-di-Benedetto-XVI-Po.html&title=   Potenza e fecondit%C3%A0 dell%E2%80%99umilt%C3%A0   &locale=it) I wondered if perhaps Benedict hadn’t had an experience similar to that of St Thomas Aquinas.

The story goes that as St Thomas was writing (dictating, as he did) the fourth part of his watershed Summa Theologica, the Lord appeared to him in a vision. After seeing the breadth and the depth as it were, St Thomas descended back to his day to day work–and realized that compared to what he had seen, all this is just straw. He even wanted to burn everything he had written up to then–a desire, which, to the gratitude of eight centuries of seminarians worldwide, was never carried out.

It is well known that Benedict was already putting on the finishing touches to his encyclical, rumored to be on the theme of faith (a suitable theme, given the Year of the Faith, etc). Who’s to say he hasn’t had a similar vision, to the point where any and everything else he could do would seem like mere straw?

“The seed is the word…”

Faith has become something of a rarity today. While it is easy enough to see the things around us, and to weigh things according to human reason, there are still circumstances which escape our logic, and call for something deeper. And it’s not like we just can’t reach that deep–we often get the sense that the answer is there, but, as it were, hidden.

In baptism, we have received the gift of faith, by which we can see even to the mind of God. Why then do we have such a hard time believing?

“The seed is the word of God…” In Luke 8, Christ explains the parable of the sower, and I think here we will find something of an answer. Whenever we hear the Word of God, a living seed is placed in our soul. But like any seed, the beginnings of its growth are its most fragile moment; it is necessary to protect and nourish the seed, so as to grow into a robust faith.

My hope is that these words may help contribute to the nourishment of that seed. Ultimately, it will grow through the grace of God. But our little help can’t hurt. And hopefully as believers, we can strengthen and confirm each other in the faith, so as to discern the heart and the will of Our Lord.