I have never been to Africa, so I have never been with lions in the wild. But once, seven years ago as I left the zoo one cold day, I heard the lion roar. I will never forget the power of the sound of it. The zoo was almost empty of visitors. Through the gathering quiet of dusk came this magnificent, terrifying sound.
I have never been on the sea when a sudden squall created whitecaps everywhere. I have never been in a boat that was tossed by waves in the night. But I have stood in the darkness at the end of a pier in the night when the sea crashed around me during a storm.
I remember those experiences as I pray with today’s readings. Yesterday we began what will be two months of readings from the Hebrew prophets. Last week, almost too quietly, on Monday and Thursday we heard of the downfalls of the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel as God let His people be carried off to Assyria.
Before God let His people be carried into exile, He called out to them again and again through prophets.
Amos was one of the first of those prophets. He was a peaceable man, a “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” when God called him to speak to His people. Scholars date his prophecy at about 760 BCE—during a time of peace. About 15 years later the historical events began which led to the fall of the Northern and Southern kingdoms. He was the early warning system.
In yesterday’s reading Amos named the people’s crimes: injustice and carelessness with worship. Today Amos uses images of lions to express how God feels about His people’s injustice and careless worship. Lions were familiar animals to Amos’ listeners. The image of the lion roaring would have been powerful to them.
“Does a lion roar in the forest when it has no prey?” “Does a young lion cry out from its den unless it has seized something?” “The lion roars—who will not be afraid! The Lord God speaks—who will not prophesy!” God is the lion, and He is expressing his unhappiness with His people. He is roaring. He hopes to invoke in them Holy Fear which could save them.
The face of God in the tabernacle is so gentle. So approachable. So merciful. So safe. When I am very close to Jesus there, I am not afraid. That is my image as I read today’s Gospel. Jesus and His disciples are in a boat. Jesus is asleep. A squall comes up and the disciples are frightened. The Gospel says, “The boat was being swamped by the waves.” It is taking on water as the waves spill over into it. The disciples wake Jesus up. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!”
I go to the tabernacle. I go to Jesus. I say so often, “Lord, save me! I am perishing!” Admittedly, most of the storms in my life at present are ordinary thunderstorms of living or are internal. Internally these days, the waves rise up and spill over. I cry out! Jesus calms me. But He must do it again and again. I wonder: am I missing something? Why do I not stay at peace?
This all leads me to think about Holy Fear, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Fear of God is not so much a characteristic of contemporary spirituality. It is not so much a characteristic of my spirituality. I see myself in the boat with Jesus. I am safe. I do not need to be afraid of God. He is with me.
Yet Proverbs begins, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7) Many spiritual writers see the gifts of the Holy Spirit as progressive, with Wisdom the highest gift and Holy Fear as the starting one. And I want the Gifts of the Spirit—all of them!
Am I leaving out something from my spiritual life that would be good for me to have? Am I missing something that would keep me safer, closer to God?
I looked up Holy Fear.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a life of virtue begins with temperance (striking a balance between passions and reason), and temperance begins with fear of the Lord. We balance our lives and anchor them solidly by trading our fear of the world for fear of God which leads to attachment to God.
Aquinas talks about four levels of fear: The first level is the level of anxiety or “worldly fear”. It is fear because of the “law of the jungle”—survival of the fittest. The source of this anxiety is self-love/self-preservation. This fear is also a key factor in sin, and thus is a part of every evil. It is not hard to look around and see anxiety everywhere around me. Sometimes it is in me.
But God, as the Holy Spirit takes over a soul, gradually moves a person from fear of the world to an attraction to God. We recognize God as beyond ourselves. We hear God has standards. We are used to being afraid, and so now we begin to fear God. This is “servile fear”. Recognizing God and His ways, we see the disparity between God and self, between God’s standards and our own. This is a profound and wrenching experience for many, but for those of us who learned of God as children, it is a step we perhaps take for granted. It happened so gradually for us.
Servile fear teaches us the values of the world are not really so important. Yet we serve God because we are better off if we do what God says. We serve God to get to heaven and avoid hell. Hmm. Am I sometimes still here?
As the Holy Spirit works in the soul, servile fear turns to what Aquinas calls “initial fear.” Fear of punishment moves to fear of displeasing God or offending Him. It is a fear born of relationship rather than law. In contemporary parlance, it is the respect of the intentional disciple. As disciples of Jesus in the boat with Him we see how much we are learners. Like the disciples, we say, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” There is awe at the power of God to transform our lives. We move to amazement at how much, often, and wonderfully God works in our lives. We marvel at what the Word says to us day after day. We see the wonder of God present in the mass, and something within us is very, very still as God comes. Yes, this “initial fear” is where I mostly live these days.
But there is a final level of Holy Fear. This is “filial fear”. As we live as intentional disciples our lives are more and more permeated by God’s love. We recognize the magnitude of God. His love for us is something so much greater than we ever imagined that we stand in awe. It is a love founded on the justice and right worship Amos named in his prophecy. It becomes an exacting love—the love of the emerging missionary who moves beyond self to the impetus of the power of the Gospel to pull others from their worldly fear into the boat with Jesus. This Holy Fear keeps passions, habits, schedules, choices, and logic in balance so we may effectively do the work God gives us. This Holy Fear blows through my soul today, but I do not yet live there. I pray to live there soon.
Where are you today?
Lord, let me be in the boat with You today—let us hear the lion roar together. Increase in me the gift of Holy Fear. Let my fear be founded in my awareness of Your love and my desire to please You.
For a more detailed presentation of St. Thomas Aquinas, see Summa Theologiae, IIa, IIc, q19, a 9. My own summary came from a discussion of virtue and gift of the Holy Spirit in The Human Person According to John Paul II by J. Brian Bransfield, p 214-217.