The late Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, longtime president of the University of Notre Dame, said that the prayer he found most effective was simply, “Come Holy Spirit.”
This underscores the importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But even if we have a devotion to the Spirit, we may have questions about one gift: “Fear of the Lord” may seem off-putting and confusing.
What does it mean to fear the Lord?
For many older Catholics, a real fear of punishment hung over their spirituality. God could seem on the one hand loving and merciful, but a vision of hell seemed to compete with this vision of a God who was a loving parent.
Since the Second Vatican Council, we have been strengthened by a deeper appreciation of the overwhelming love and mercy of God and what true fear of our omniscient God means.
The idea of fear, the great medieval thinker St. Thomas Aquinas said, is that we fear separation from God. Fear of punishment, he said, is a “servile fear” but fear of committing a fault is a “filial fear” as a child fears offending its father.
Although both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures describe judgment, the overriding message of both is that of a loving and merciful Father who invites us into relationship and advises us not to fear.
In reality, “Do not be afraid,” or “Fear not,” are the most used phrases in Scripture.
Angels say don’t fear when they visit Mary or appear to shepherds or visit Zechariah.
Prophets say it when they speak in God’s name. “Do not fear, I am with you,” Isaiah tells us. Even the Book of Deuteronomy urges us not to fear “for it is the Lord, your God, who marches with you; he will never fail you or forsake you.”
And Jesus frequently cautioned his disciples against fear. “It is I,” he tells the disciples as he walks to them across the water and tells them not to be afraid. With his presence, there is no room for fear.
For many, our vision of God as parent is shaped by our earliest experience of parents. We are all the products of parents.
Perhaps we had two stable and loving parents. Perhaps we had an absent parent, a parent who succumbed to addiction or illness and left us too soon. Perhaps we had adoptive parents, or single parents, wise parents or abusive parents. Mothers and fathers come in all varieties and each shapes our own vision of parenting and perhaps our vision of God as parent.
Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus present a clearer image of God as parent than in the story of the prodigal son, which might be more precisely called the parable of the Father.
In this story, the younger son acts abysmally. He asks for an inheritance early and seems happy to leave Dad behind as he squanders his funds on dissolute living. Any parent might feel exasperated.
But the prodigal’s father is welcoming, merciful and ready with open arms and no scolding or questions when the son comes back in desperation. If Jesus is, as Paul tells us in Colossians, the image of the invisible God, then the prodigal’s father is Jesus’ description of the image of the invisible God as parent.
So, when we think about fearing this father, we fear not him, but we fear offending someone who could love us so totally and unconditionally. We fear the thought of rejecting this kind of love, of not accepting this kind of invitation. We fear missing the wholeness of life that this kind of parent offers to us. We fear hurting this parent or being absent from his liberating love.
During his pontificate, Pope Francis has endeavored to help us understand this merciful and life-giving parent who is our God.
This is how Pope Francis describes our fear of the Lord: “This is the fear of God: abandonment into the goodness of our Father who loves us so. ‚Ä¶ This is what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts: He makes us feel like children in the arms of our father ‚Ä¶ (with) the wonder and joy of being a child who knows he is served and loved by the Father.”
How could we not fear separation from such a parent?
Pope Francis, again in speaking of fear of the Lord, said, “There is no reason to be scared of him! (It), instead, is a gift of the Holy Spirit through whom we are reminded of how small we are before God and of his love.”
When someone distances themselves from God, the pope said, “he lives only for money, for vanity, or power or pride, then the holy fear of God sends us a warning: Be careful! … You will not be happy.”
Perhaps it helps to think of fear of the Lord as “awe in the presence of the Lord.”
Perhaps rather than fear the thought of God, we should fear being separated from that God expressed in Deuteronomy, the powerful God who marches with us and promises not to abandon us.
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(Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)