30 November 2011

Holy Fear and the Life of Wisdom


"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and understanding marks all who attain it."  So says the Psalmist.  This verse, while familiar, is puzzling, and therefore frequently neglected.  In fact, the fear of the Lord has fallen out of fashion and is rarely discussed.  What does fear have to do with wisdom?  And what does wisdom have to do with me?  Wisdom, after all, is the stuff of grizzled old hermits and cloistered contemplatives — deep souls hidden with God in the wilderness.  I, on the other hand, am an incurably pragmatic city-dweller.    Maybe I just want to get to heaven, not become a mystical knight of faith.  And as for fear, doesn't Scripture tell us that "perfect love drives out fear"?  The more we know God, the more we know he loves us, and the less we have to fear from him.  So what place could fear have in the Christian life?

These are strong objections to the words of the Psalmist.  Yet when we survey the words of Scripture, praise for this holy fear recurs constantly.  In the classic text of Isaiah's prophesy concerning the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the prophet says that Christ (and therefore also the Christian) "will delight in the fear of the Lord" (Is 11:3).  When Ben Sira, the chief Old Testament eulogist of Wisdom, sets out to praise its wonders, he refers to the Fear of the Lord dozens of times.  He calls it "glory and exultation, gladness and a festive crown," and promises that those who fear God "will be happy at the end; even on the day of death they will be blessed." (Sir 2:11,13)  The praises of this virtue are sung again and again in the Wisdom of Solomon, the book of Proverbs, the story of Job, and the Psalms.  The scriptural testimony in favor of the fear of the Lord is so overwhelming that, despite our initial reservations, we have to ask: what are we missing?  What's so great about fear?  How does it fit into real life?  A fresh perspective is needed to discover the proper placement of this gift of the Spirit within contemporary Catholic life.

In one of his rare moments of self-disclosure, St. Thomas Aquinas once admitted that he had a mistress: a lady he had pursued his entire career as a priest.  Her company, he said, was free of all tedium, her conversation a perfect delight.  He considered chasing after her throughout his itinerant life more wonderful and more joyful than any other pursuit.  The mistress, he then confessed, was called Wisdom.  

Wisdom occupied the great saint throughout his life, and he loved to talk and write about her.  And what did he say?  He writes repeatedly that wisdom is a gift which allows people to order their lives rightly in thought and action, to see things clearly in terms of their ultimate origins and ends.  Wisdom is a gift from God which draws us to the fountainhead of truth and allows us to know things as they are in the sight of the Creator — to see their ultimate unity, truth and goodness.

This would seem wonderful but impractical — a postcard view from one of those contemplative forests we mentioned earlier — if not for that nagging question in the heart of man, which the philosophers pinpoint as the defining problem of Modernity:  Who am I? Modern man cannot help but fret about the meaning of his existence.  Despite the frequent protestations of many thinkers, human life demands a purpose, and the need for a purpose reveals itself to us as a kind of un-fillable pit hidden in the core of our being.

It follows that wisdom, if we can trust Aquinas to know his beloved, is a supremely practical gift.  Wisdom shows us who we are and helps us to know our purpose.  Without wisdom we are forced to live life blindly, ignorant of who made us or where happiness lies.  But with wisdom we can order all things rightly, according to their true nature and purpose, and we see clearly how every choice and action can help us achieve our ultimate goal.  Wisdom allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of God, to make sense of the world — an increasingly tall order.

If we take a look at the world, it is difficult to deny that most people lack wisdom.  Without a vivid sense of the purpose of life, we frequently try to fill the hole in our hearts with all kinds of things:  money, friends, beauty, health, success...  The list goes on.  But the Christian knows better than this.  The follower of Christ knows from St. Paul that our destiny is to be with God in eternity, and from St. John he knows that we are called to be like God — to see him as he is.

Common Sense chimes in: It's nice that God wants us to be with him and all, but the thought of contemplating God for all eternity could only be made appealing by comparison with a demon-filled fire pit.  With a mild smirk and his characteristic raised index finger, Aquinas answers Common Sense by reminding us of how wonderful life with God is: those who find unity with the Lord of Hosts share in the joy of his divine life.  God is perfectly good, infinitely wise and beautiful, and the goodness of everything we know and love on earth is merely a pale reflection of his glory.  To be with him in eternity is a gift which transcends every natural capacity of our weak human nature.

The Father is waiting eagerly to lift us up in the person of his Son and to make us perfectly happy, but there are some obstacles.  He does not force us to accept the friendship and happiness he offers; he wants us to take it of our own choice.  Choice requires freedom, though, and freedom depends on a right judgment of the truth, without which we cannot pursue what is genuinely good, but will constantly be distracted and led astray.  If the human intellect were flawless and saw things as they are, this would pose no problems. Unfortunately, our minds have been damaged by original sin, and this initial guilt is compounded through concupiscence, which predisposes us to overestimate the value of created goods.  In other words Common Sense has (alas!) suffered a heavy blow to the head and is no longer a sure guide in life.

False judgments arising from concupiscence — that delightfully medieval word for the human being's inborn moral stupidity — harm the intellect, and a corrupt intellect leads the will astray.  A faulty will piles sin upon sin.  It damages the intellect further through the regular affirmation of falsehoods, and reduces the human being from its natural dignity into something closer to a mere animal.  Because the will follows the intellect, the only thing that can stop this cycle is the restoration of its original knowledge of the happiness we were created for.  But since we were created for God, and God's infinite majesty utterly surpasses the capacities of our finite minds, we cannot possibly redeem ourselves.  So, far from even beginning to pay the incredible debt we owe for our sins, we cannot even keep ourselves from sinning more, injuring ourselves and others as we plunge with wicked delight into the depths of despair.

Humanity thus stands in desperate need of three things: a sacrifice to atone for our guilt, a miraculous restoration of our intellect and will, and a guide to lead us down the path to perfection.  These three needs answer St. Anselm's famous question, Cur Deus Homo? Why did God become man?  In his unsearchable providence, the Blessed Trinity has conspired from all eternity to free us from the pit we have dug ourselves.  And how does this plan work?  In Christ we find our atoning sacrifice, in his grace we are restored and perfected, and through his example we are shown the way to happiness.

Christ desires the salvation of all mankind together in one body, so that we can better participate in the perfect unity of the Godhead.  To this end, he employs human ministers to bind us together in his love, so that by serving each other in this life we can more perfectly share in the happiness of the white-robed choirs gathered before his throne.  Through his sacraments, Christ restores the human soul, giving it a supernaturally infused ability to recognize the truth for which it was born.  In the mass we receive the Word in the Eucharist: a perfect sign of Christ's gift, which not only participates in his sacrifice, but also calls us to be crucified with him, and gives us the strength to follow him through death into eternal life.  We also receive the Word by hearing: in listening to the homily and receiving the words of Scripture we are given the opportunity to grow in faith and understanding.  Faith, however, is nothing other than that divine light which re-orients our minds toward God.  It is accompanied by Charity, which rectifies and sanctifies the will, and Hope, which gives us the strength to fight for the joy prepared for us.  These virtues, then, and especially faith, form the essence of the wisdom that so delighted and utterly seduced St. Thomas Aquinas.

Christ has prepared for us this most excellent way to salvation, but while we remain bound to the sinful nature of our birth, obstacles will continue to threaten our progress.  The world is full of genuinely good things, and as long as our knowledge of God is shadowy and imperfect we can be led astray by the illusory promise of an earthly paradise.  In order not to get stuck in the ditches which line the straight and narrow path, we need to learn to avoid them.  The first sin of our parents, according to St. Augustine, was pride — the desire to set oneself above divine providence and become an independent and ultimate lawgiver.  From what we have already said concerning wisdom, it is clear that pride is, by definition, a kind of foolishness.  More than that, pride is diametrically opposed to wisdom.  Since God himself is Truth, and his truth orders all things rightly toward their own perfection, when the proud man removes himself from divine truth, he will immediately and necessarily fall into a pit of ignorance and error.

It follows that we need to avoid pride by pursuing the virtue naturally opposed to it, which will guard our hearts against pride.  Common sense says that this virtue is humility, but humility, as St. Catherine of Siena once explained, follows directly from a sense of the lowliness of our own sinful humanity before the glory of the Ancient of Days.  And this vivid sense, according to St. Gregory the Great, is nothing other than the fear of the Lord.

The fear of the Lord, however, can be understood in more than one way.  Peter Lombard (the great and unfortunately neglected medieval master) speaks of two main ways of fearing God: servile and filial.  Servile fear arises from a concern over the pain and deprivation which may be inflicted as a result of our actions.  Thus a person who is kept from sin because they fear hell acts out of servile fear, which, though good, is imperfect.  The imperfection of servile fear is like the imperfection of attrition, i.e. repentance for sin which comes from fear of "the pains of hell and the loss of heaven."  It keeps a person out of trouble but fails to grasp the heart of the matter.  Filial fear, by contrast, goes right to the heart.

Filial fear is the fear of offending a loved one.  I fear hurting my family or friends, spouse or children, chiefly because I want the best for them and want them to be happy.  When applied to God, filial fear is a fear of transgression which arises from a deep knowledge and love of God's goodness and generosity.  The Christian would rather sacrifice everything than lose his friendship with Jesus, who has created and sanctified him at the cost of his own life, who loves him unconditionally, who is in himself perfect goodness, truth, justice and mercy.

Attempting to see how wisdom relates to the fear of the Lord has thus led us to see how this unlikely virtue solves several extremely relevant problems.  First, it helps us better know who we are and who God is.  Second, by promoting the growth of wisdom, fear of the Lord frees us from that existential angst so common in contemporary intellectual life.  Third, it provides a clue to the genuine meaning of freedom and liberation — freedom from error and liberation from debilitating sinfulness — enabling us to become more perfectly the individuals we were meant to be.  Fourth, and most importantly, it protects us on the path to salvation.  This is why Ben Sira speaks of it so lovingly, when he tells us that "The fear of the Lord is glory and exultation, gladness and a festive crown."