FEAR NOT …
Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, done and dusted. Life can now return to normal. Really? If the preceding 50 days were a drama, then “Yes”. If it was a spiritual experience, then “No”. Post Resurrection we cannot possibly return to normal life. A believing Christian’s life can never be “normal”. Nor is it abnormal. It transcends the normal to a higher level of consciousness and resultant action, mission or witness.
Surprisingly, the first human reaction to the Resurrection was fear. The women were afraid, as were the disciples. Though the gospels are silent about it, one may safely assume that the only one who was not afraid was Mother Mary. She had 33 years of preparation from when the Prophet Simeon said to her, “A sword will pierce your soul too” (Lk 2:35). Mother Mary had no need to run to the tomb for confirmation of the Resurrection. Having silently joined in her son’s passion and death, she had already experienced his Resurrection.
For lesser mortals though, fear was the overriding factor. To assuage that fear the Risen Jesus says to Mary Magdala “Do not be afraid” (Mat 28:10). When he appears to the frightened eleven it is not victorious bravado. He gently says, “Peace be with you” (Lk 24:37). Sensing their alarm at seeing a “ghost” he ate grilled fish with them (cf Lk 24:42). He did the same at the shore of Tiberius, sharing bread and fish with them (cf Jn 21:14). The belief was that ghosts do not eat anything the way a human being could. Jesus was super sensitive to human emotions, including fear.
For the heck of it, I did a search on the words “fear” and “love” in the soft copy of the Bible on my phone. The results are interesting. In the Old Testament (O.T.) fear is mentioned 463 times while love is found 246 times. In contrast in the New Testament (N.T.) fear is mentioned just 92 times while love is found 153 times. This in itself is indicative of how the God of the O.T. was one of fear, while that of the N.T. is one of love.
Fear seems to be a recurring theme and needs to be addressed. There are some consoling verses in the O.T. itself that help eradicate fear. “You have seen for yourselves what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you away on eagle’s wings” (Ex 19:4). “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5). “Can a woman forget her baby at the breast; feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you. Look I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Is 49:14-16).
Fear is a key element in Peter’s relationship with Jesus. At their first encounter, he was so afraid that he said “Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). At their final encounter too, he is so scared that he denies Jesus three times (cf Mk 14:66-72). It is only after he is imbued by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that he becomes a changed person. He now defies all Jewish customs and the fear of what others might think, to welcome Cornelius the Roman Centurion, where he boldly proclaims, “I now really understand …” (Acts 10:34). Not much later, when he is imprisoned by King Herod he is able to step out unfettered (cf Acts 12:6-11). Peter was a transformed man. What had changed in him?
We find the answer in the first letter of John. “In love, there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear because fear implies punishment and whoever is afraid has not come to perfection in love. Let us love then because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:18-19).
To understand this passage I shall give an analogy that I have used for inner healing. I have a glass of water. Somebody tips it over and the water flows out. Most people would say that the glass is now empty. Incorrect. It is now filled with air, as nature abhors a vacuum. What must one do to remove the air? Simple, just fill the glass with water again.
The glass (receptacle) is symbolic of the human heart that is designed for love. Because of sad or bad experiences that come our way we become devoid of love. We are now filled with negative feelings – fear, anxiety, anger, bitterness and even hatred. How do we remedy this? By opening our hearts to God’s love as experienced in Jesus. Negative feelings then get dissipated and we become a new creation. This letter of John invites us to experience this fullness of God’s love.
Unfortunately, not just in religion, but in social life too; fear is an overriding factor that determines most of our actions. We are afraid of the past, present and future. We are afraid of what others will say or think. We are afraid of failure. We are afraid of being politically incorrect. We are afraid of taking reasonable risks. The list is endless. So our lives are dominated and actions determined by fear. It becomes an even more powerful emotion than love.
It is the age-old dilemma of the donkey with a carrot dangling in front or a stick striking from behind. A student of behavioural sciences will agree that the stick is far more effective than the carrot in achieving one’s goals. A simple test – do I stop at a red light out of love for the law or for fear of being fined?
Organised religion, including the Catholic Church, has used this fear psychosis to telling effect – notably the fear of going to hell! Politicians from Indira Gandhi to Imran Khan have played the “foreign hand” to generate mass hysteria and hyper-nationalism. I call this corallisation; just as a shepherd uses sheepdogs to bark and herd or stampede the sheep into the coral.
Parents often follow the same method. “Eat your food, do your homework or else …”. Worse still is when a child is deliberately threatened, as with a ghost story. The child then clings to the parent in fear. I call this using the spectre (ghost) to establish one’s sceptre (symbol of power or control). Kings have sceptres as do bishops (shepherds) who strut around with their crosiers.
So fear is deeply rooted in our psyche. It is the only spiritual strength that can eradicate it. Even the Tempter plays on our fears. I give two examples from my own spiritual journey when I was living in Jyotiniketan Ashram, Bareilly 45 years ago.
In my sleep, I had two frightening experiences. In the first scene, a dark shadowy figure would appear, like Jesus walking across the waters to the disciples asleep in their boat. The other was similar to Mary Magdala seeing a shadowy person whom she mistook for the gardener. Both these scenes were terrifying and I could not look straight at the person.
When I shared these experiences with my spiritual mentor Fr Deenabandhu Ofm Cap he said to me, “The next time you have this experience just say – Lord if it is you, bid me come”. I did just that. Fear was transformed into a deeply spiritual experience.
This Easter Monday Pope Francis was addressing 80,000 young people in St Peter’s Square. He was advising them to share their fears, not bottle them up. When we share our fears we often find that they are baseless. Even psychologists tell us that psychosis is imaginary fear.
We are also blessed with intelligence/and common sense. As a dog lover I can say with certainty that the best way to train a dog is not to beat it with a stick, but to reward it with a biscuit. The same principle applies to child psychology. I once asked my adult children how often I had scolded them? “Once”, they said, when I had told them to go to sleep but they continued reading their storybook under the bed covers. I trust that
they will not hold it against me. Coming to think of it, I too can remember my father scolding me just once.
So this Eastertide let us hear the gentle voice of Jesus knocking at our door, seeking entry (cf Rev 3:20), saying “He laid his right hand on me and said – FEAR NOT, it is I, the First and the Last, I am the Living One, I was dead and look I am alive forever and ever” (Rev 1:17-18).
The writer has written several books and articles on spirituality.
The writer (Chhotebhai) is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum.