Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | September 14, 2009

With fear of God…

When the priest sings, “With fear of God, and faith and love, draw near…”  we’re invited to come forth and partake of the body and blood, bind Christ into our core, and allow sacrifice and thanksgiving energize our spirit in love and harmony with those around us. It’s an awe-filled moment. And in this setting, there’s a sense in which our understanding of the full context is straightforward, and we get it. Fear is not about being afraid.

But whenever I think of the term “Fear of God” outside this setting, the meaning darkens, becomes opaque and almost abstraction. And what was sensed almost innately as part of the experience in the Eucharist slips into an ordinary separateness, and narrows understanding. But realizing my confusion is the first step towards isolating a problem, and so I came to realize this whole fear of God thing…is worth a second look, or at least a look of its own as a step along the road to enfolding oneself in the Church.

As noted here sometime back, whenever we begin to look for something, it enables our senses to open, we see and discover often far more than we thought we were looking for – indeed, objects literally leap out of far greater interest than the mundane things we were searching for at the start, and sometimes the wonder simply seizes hold. The more this is noticed, the more one finds that it may in fact be the misdirection of a searching gaze that allows the revelation… not because we don’t want to find something, but because we do, and because so often we are unaware what we are really looking for.

So of course in wondering more about reading icons and renewing studies here, I stumbled on a definition of “Fear of God” without knowing I wanted it… or at least not expecting to find it here. So I read past it… but it stuck and drew me back. I have of course looked further… and I’m tucking my findings in here so they won’t get lost. At the start, there’s Archbishop Lazar Puhalo’s book, “The Ikon as Scripture” where he treats the icon of  Moses at the church of San Vitale in Ravena, and contrasts this image with that of Michelangelo… or Hollywood’s Charleton Heston:

“…God calls Moses,”…very meek, beyond all the men on the earth” (Nu.12:3). The strength of Moses was his meekness, humility and readiness to obey God and submit to his will, and because of this, God called him to His service. Moreover, in both the Hebrew painting (great synagogue of Dura Europa) and the Orthodox Christian ikon, it is clear that Moses has no power of his own and does nothing of himself, for here too, we see the hand of God bestowing grace upon the submissive and obedient servant. Note also the peacefulness and love on the face of the man who is trembling in fear – this is peaceful fear, a love-filled fear. This is what is meant by “Fear of God” – a loving awe, filled with a spirit of peace and hope, assured that God, in all His awesome might, is also a loving Father.Moses
We can see all these qualities more clearly in the following portrayal of Moses in an ikon at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Mt. Sinai. In this portrayal, study the face and disposition of Moses. Is this not a scripturally correct portrayal of the man of whom God testifies, “he is the meekest man on earth” ? Study the tenderness and love on the face of Moses, as he trembles in godly fear before the presence of his Creator and Lord, his loving Father who desires the freedom and salvation of His children.”

I love this description: “Moses as the meekest man on earth.” Icons are great way of making this sense of “Fear of God” clear. But the writings of the Fathers make clear that there is more to this, that perhaps Moses got here through a more ordinary way… through a process as outlined by the Fathers, and the scriptures as well.

“Fear of God is of two kinds. The first is generated in us by the threat of punishment. It is through such fear that we develop in due order self-control, patience, hope in God and dispassion; and it is from dispassion that love comes. The second kind of fear is linked with love and constantly produces reverence in the soul, so that it does not grow indifferent to God because of the intimate communion of its love. “The first kind of fear is expelled by perfect love when the soul has acquired this and is no longer afraid of punishment (cf I John 4:18). The second kind, as we have already said, is always found united with perfect love. The first kind of fear is referred to in the following two verses: “Out of fear of the Lord men shun evil” (Prov. 16:6), and “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10). The second kind is mentioned in the following verses: “Fear of the Lord is pure, and endures forever” (Ps. 19:9 LXX), and “Those who fear the Lord will not want for anything” (Ps. 34:10 LXX). ” St. Maximus the Confessor.

St. Maximus the Confessor clarifies that there is a progression, and the higher form is the result of the lower… and given the tendency to want to skip over the lower form as “all that fire and brimstone stuff”, its helpful to see the relationship between the two. Of course, those of us not much into F&B might prefer to look at it as facing eternity with God  and experiencing God ‘s love as  our burning ingratitude or irrascibility or some variation… but perhaps the sense of unsought consequence is enough.

“The prophet Jeremiah, speaking in the place of God, tells us that from above there comes the very fear of God by which we may cling to Him. “I shall give them one heart and one way so that they may fear me during all their days, so that all will be well for them and for their sons after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them and I shall not cease to do good things for them and, as a gift, I shall put fear of Me in their hearts so that they may never go away from Me (Jer. 32:39-40). Ezekiel speaks in similar terms: “And I shall give them a single heart and I will put a new spirit in them and I will remove the strong heart from their bodies and I will give them a heart of flesh instead. And I shall do this so that they may walk as I command and respect my decisions and carry them out. Then they shall be my people and I shall be their God” (Ez. 11:19-20).” St. John Cassian

As I’m a fan of Hosea’s opening chapters, St. John’s putting these two together gets to the heart of the virtue of fear in this sense. But I further appreciate that fear need not enable only one sort of response.

“There is a humility that comes from the fear of God, and there is a humility that comes from the fervent love of God. One man is humbled because of his fear of God, another is humbled because of his joy. The man humbled from fear of God is possessed of modesty in his members, a right ordering of his senses, and a heart contrite at all times. But the man humbled because of joy is possessed of great exuberance and an open and insuppressible heart.” The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac of Syria

Finally, there is a sense that both spirits enabled will result in works that do in fact bear their spirit in a righteous, God pleasing way.

“Acts of Kindness and generosity are spoilt by self-esteem, meanness and pleasure, unless these have first been destroyed by fear of God.” St. Kosmas Aitolos

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