On the Fear of Sanctity

May 2002By David Vincent Meconi

David Vincent Meconi, S.J., is a Jesuit Scholastic in theological studies at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

G.K. Chesterton touches upon a terrible irony when he writes, "there is nothing that so strikes men with fear as the saying that they are all the sons of God." This statement is terrible because it is true, ironic because there is perhaps nothing more contradictory than dreading our own sanctity. Why one fears his own perfection is nothing other than bewildering. As is often the case, Chesterton reminds us of something we would rather ignore: The familiarity of our own fallenness is more welcome than the grandeur of God. Surely this is why John Paul II began his pontificate by telling the world, "Do not be afraid. Open the doors to the Redeemer." Well, the doors have been opened and yet we fear. Of what are we afraid?

To answer this we need to point out that neither Chesterton nor the Holy Father is encouraging us to be foolhardy creatures with no regard for the truth of things. St. Augustine makes a helpful distinction between what he calls servile and chaste fear. Augustine has us imagine two women, both of whom fear their husbands. One, enjoying an adulterous tryst, fears her husband's questions and dreads that he might someday return home early. Her fear rises from self-love and selfish desire; that if things go otherwise, she might be forced to forgo personal pleasure. The other woman fears out of love for her husband. She fears not her husband's arrival, but his departure. She fears lest their love ever be offended. "The former says, I fear to be condemned; the latter, I fear to be forsaken. Let the like have place in the mind of Christians, and you find one fear which love casts out, and another fear, chaste, enduring forever" (Homilies on the First Epistle of John, IX.6). Whereas servile fear dreads only that which happens to one's own self, chaste fear recognizes the preciousness of communion and the rarity of love and how things could be otherwise.

This is why only true charity can manifest the proper place of fear. What Augustine calls chaste fear is really the inescapable cross of love. It is a fear that accompanies our loving another because it recognizes that we have chosen to live for someone outside ourselves. We are now dependent upon someone whom we cannot, would not, control. This is a sweet and holy fear because it knows the vulnerability of no longer being at the center of things, the risk of no longer living only for oneself.

St. Thomas Aquinas links the Holy Spirit's gift of fear with the virtue of hope. Both qualities are concerned with the soul's movement toward and adherence to God. Aquinas sees this blessed fear as that which accompanies one's awareness of God's otherness, His sovereignty and glory. As such, this fear will not only exist in Heaven but will actually increase and be perfected, as the blessed more and more come to see the supereminence and incomprehensibility of Love (STh II-II. 19.11). This holy fear compels the soul toward God, making it magnanimous and able to see the greatness for which it is made. Servile fear, on the other hand, restricts the soul's ability to reach outward, contracting it and forcing it back into itself (STh I-II. 44.1). It is a fear that breeds mistrust. It is this fear that drove our first parents to hide from their Maker (Gen. 3:10), seeking refuge in the lowest of goods when an entire Garden of Goodness was offered them. One of the "tricks" of the spiritual life, then, is learning how to grow in holy fear as we learn to detect and discard that enslaving fear which keeps us from true holiness.

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