19th of the Year, 13 Aug 23
I am terrified of mice. Absolutely terrified. Once on a day off I was in the congregation at a weekday Mass in another Church and there as I knelt during the Eucharistic Prayer I saw out of the corner of my eye one scurry across the Chapel. I tried and tried to stay focused on Jesus and not to get too worked up about it and stayed for as long as I could, hoping I could at least make it until the priest received Holy Communion, but then it started crawling closer and closer. I’m not sure anyone else had noticed it but eventually I just had to get out. The person sitting next to me thought I’d just stormed off because I was annoyed with something the priest had done, but no when she came out of Church at the end of Mass I explained. I am terrified of mice and one of the things I am not terribly sure about is whether that is a sin I should confess.
Quite often when God appears He has to say, “Do not be afraid.” Mary is much perplexed, we’re told, when the Archangel tells her that the Lord is with her and so Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” (St Luke 1:26-30). But it’s not just at this moment, remember too what Jesus says to the women after His Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning as St Matthew records: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” (St Matthew 28:5). Last Sunday in St Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration the Lord revealing His glory has to say to the same to St Peter, St James and St John (St Matthew 17:6-7) and in today’s Gospel when they see our Lord walking towards them on the the sea of Galilee He again has to reassure them, “Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.” What’s perhaps worth noting is that our Lord’s words seem to assume the disciples will not be afraid when they know it is Him; but these other passages show us this is not necessarily the case!
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we are told in Proverbs 9. And we can a bit too comfy with our Lord, a bit too certain of our own salvation, a little over-confident that we know how God is going to behave in different circumstance and we can forget that we need to fear Him. C S Lewis’ second book of the series, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” is very clear that the fact that Aslan is a lion reminds us that we should be slightly apprehensive when we approach God. We are bold and confident when we do so; but ought never to take things for granted or assume we’ve fathomed Him out.
This holy fear - or reverence we might call it - has to be distinguished from unhealthy fears. Hence St John can also write in his first letter to the Church, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whosoever fears has not reached perfect love,” (I John 4:18). God is just in punishing me for the sins I commit and I trust in Him; I do not fear that He will be unjust, that would also be sinful. But I ought to be fearful for I know the weight of my sin and how if salvation was based solely on the standard of my own life I would merit nothing but eternal punishment. It is only Christ living in me who enables me to stand before His throne of mercy and judgement. Pray then, my friends, for a holy fear of God, a reverence, an awareness of our need of God. This holy fear will be expressed by us being conscientious in the confession of our sin and our valuing of the holy things we handle in this Church, chief among them the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, Holy Communion.
So much fear in our day-to-day lives seems to be about loss. This is perhaps something of the assumption behind our Lord’s words: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” It is naturally part of something we fear, that it will take something away from us. In my fear of mice, perhaps, I fear loss of control, loss of composure, loss of ability to concentrate. We can fear loss in so many ways: loss of life, loss of health, loss of routines, loss of strength, loss of independence, loss of love, loss of mind and so on. This fear of loss, however, leads us to be miserly and to lack generosity. Jesus says soon after those words I’ve just quoted from Matthew 10: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” If we let go of the fear of loss, we will actually gain much more, indeed an eternal reward, which can never be taken away from us. Significantly these two pieces of wisdom come from a great collections of sayings referred to as missionary. If we are to be effective evangelists and spreaders of the Gospel we have to be comfortable with losing certain things, our prestige, something of our time, and stuff more generally: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor,” Our Lord says rather dauntingly.
If we are to be willing to lose things we hold dear and which we fear losing then we will need some gift from God to help us to endure this. God always provides, as we know, and the gift He gives us in this instance is the gift of fortitude. Along with justice, temperance, and prudence, fortitude is one of the cardinal virtues, those wondrous gifts, which with faith, hope and love, the Holy Spirit gives to us. Through the Church’s teachings we learn that fortitude can be encouraged within ourselves through virtuous living. As in all these things the more we do it, the easier we will find it. We might think of a parallel with certain phobias, which folk might try to cure through certain controlled exposure to the thing they fear, be it spiders or confined spaces. So it is with our inclination to love or to be brave, we flex the muscles and then it becomes a bit easier next time. We find it hard to love a particular individual, we find it hard to forgive someone. Well, we work hard at it and next time it is easier. I’ve now made banana bread so often I don’t really need a recipe but I used to have to think about it. The same is true of aspects of our spiritual life.
Being brave, having the virtue of fortitude will mean realising supremely the victory is God’s and it has already been won. We don’t have to worry that we might be backing the wrong side when it comes to God, for He has already won through the Cross. We don’t have to worry whether the saving effects of the Cross will be known by us, this gift is given in Baptism. The only concern we are to have is whether we have united our lives sufficiently to the Cross so as to share in that Victory.
One way to increase our desire for fortitude is sometimes to be aware of what others find frightening and see how they overcome it. For example, in many ways I am a complete introvert and I find interaction with others terrifying, the thought of public speaking a nightmare and working with children far from my natural area of expertise. But I do precisely all those things and I do them alright and that’s thanks to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for sending me His Holy Spirit. And that same Spirit is promised to you, my friends. He is the Comforter, the Paraclete, the Consolation. So then, we do not need to be afraid; or at least when we are, fear must not determine how we behave.
We will see fear driving others, for example when people are upset or get cross about something, then at heart they are afraid of something: afraid of being late, afraid of being shown to be weak, afraid of irrelevance, afraid someone might be better than them. Realising that aggression and hatred and meanness of heart stems so often from fear changes the way we in our turn respond to them: not with equally assertive gestures of frustration, but with compassion, understanding and without piling more fear on to the fear that drives them.
So often churches are places of fear. Christians can fear what will happen if they are not there; they can fear irrelevance and being left behind by the modern world. The Apostles’ fear in today’s Gospel cripples them. Peter has to cry out, “Save me,” and he’s not just talking about being drowned by the water for the Church is always to call to Christ, “save us,” for that is the definition of God’s relationship to us: He is our Saviour. And because we know the power of the salvation of Christ, we don’t have to be afraid of anything, even mice. Know, then, the strength of God, His gift of fortitude in your life.