Part II of “Working Thoughts During These Days”.
Fear, Death, and Hope.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love”—1 John 4.18
I always struggled with this verse as a teenager. I just could not figure out why I should not be afraid to go to sleep after watching the latest iteration of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or finishing a chapter in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. It seemed natural to be frightened and fearful. In fact, truth be told, it was a bit fun, but did this mean that I was not yet perfected in love?
Obviously, my immature mind could not grasp the depth of what St. John wrote to his disciples. Love does indeed drive out fear, but it is the perfect love of God, and our love of God in return, that drives out fear. Not the terror and adrenaline rush of watching or reading a Stephen King thriller, but the greater fears of life: Punishment and Death.
Each human being has an innate fear of death, and the soul strongly fears being detached from the body. This is a natural passionate fear, but the lives of the saints are full of stories those who have conquered the psychological, and ontological, terror of death itself, through falling love with the God who is love. They, like us, began with a fear of death and turned, out of that, fear towards God. However, this was the beginning of a life of growth in love towards God and embracing the love of the Holy Trinity towards them. Of course, there was struggle involved and they needed to move through the new fear of punishment, and into a perfect love that kept the commandments of God, out of a desire to not disappoint the One who loves. (That may indeed be a fear, but it is not what John is talking about.”
To cultivate this deep love toward God, to be perfected in Divine Love, is our work as Christians, and it is vitally important that we set our minds and souls at it. If God is love, as we proclaim, and if we are to be raised as Christ is raised and are promised that his life is to be our life, what have we to fear? This is the Gospel message contained in the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not a cliché, or a saccharin preaching point, it is the truth that we proclaim and hold fast.
We should hold the classic Christian exhortation, “memento mori” (remember you must die), in front of us on a regular basis in our Christian journey. It is a reminder that this life is not all there is, and is not all that is important, what is important is what we do with the time that we are given, which for Christians is to prepare for coming face to face with God and being met with pure love for eternity. Hence the call to constant repentance, which is the downward move of humility to recognize how much we are in need of salvation, and how deep is our propensity to sin and a failure to love God.
To be clear, it is not that we should go forth seeking death. Indeed, we should be about practicing the virtue of prudence, but we also need to practice the virtue of fortitude (sometimes rendered courage) that comes from a sincere faith in Christ. Each of us must take counsel for our risk, and the impact upon our families, as well, but we are not called to live in fear.
When the news of the pandemic hit, I found myself in a strange place, compared with the media narrative of our culture and reflected I social media, as there has never been a moment of fear. This may partially be due to my age, but increasingly I find myself comfortable with my own “mortality”. However, lest anyone accuse me of dismissing the risk, I most assuredly do not, as I have two conditions that make me a prime candidate for a significant impact from this virus. Early on, in a discussion amongst clergy of the Diocese, I wrote, “Our hope is not in this life, and if I was given the virus by being in worship and succumbed, then I pray only that I have time to repent and pray.” That was not then, nor is it now, mere sentimentality.
I will say that I am concerned about the rise of a new form of xenophobia (fear of strangers). As physical distancing has been put in place, and adopted by the wider culture, I have not been shocked to see people recoiling in fear if someone accidently enters their new “personal space” of six feet. I have seen this more than a few times in my limited excursions to purchase necessary items. This virus has placed in our collective psyche the fear that the other is dangerous to us, they might be the cause of our death, and hence they must be avoided at all costs. To protect ourselves from others we have erected new barriers and now only have discourse in public places through layers of plexiglass and feel uncomfortable if the barrier is not present. We have also eliminated any physical contact between people who are not “of us” (i.e. under our own roof), and I wonder what the ultimate result will be? Humans are social beings and need both physical and barrier free social contact to be healthy. (No, I am not arguing that protective measures should not be taken, but that we have done so at a certain cost to our collective psyche that may prove problematic in the future). This new xenophobia is most definitely not a Christian attitude. We are not called to be afraid of strangers, but to love them. Of course, we should do our best to maintain the requested distance, but we need to check our attitudes when our “space” is violated.
I also wonder what the impact will be on the Church in the future if this becomes our normal social behavior. Will we be more distrustful of our fellow parishioners? Will we lose a key component of our Incarnational faith? Will we allow for anointing and laying of hands when we pray for each other? Will we share the peace in an incarnational expression, or will a simple “head jiggle” recognition be all that we have? Will we be poorer for it?