The origins of this talk are in an invitation I received some time back from the coordinator of adult faith formation at St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis. When she asked me to give a talk as part of their series, I asked what she thought a good topic might be. She said, “I think people are worried about how to handle fear in their lives.” My first thought was “I haven’t got anything prepared on fear!” But I agreed to do it. When the day came, we had three or four times more people than usual. Clearly, we had struck a responsive chord.
The bombing at the Boston Marathon reminded us all that we live in a dangerous world. But it is not just the catastrophic events we have to fear. There are ordinary ones, too: medical problems, emotional crisis, unemployment, loss of a friend or of a spouse, marital difficulties. All of these things make us anxious and afraid. What are we, as Christians, to do with fear?
We can fear many things, but in the end fear arises from the “apprehension of a future evil,” or of the prospect of losing something we value. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that there is a positive side to fear. “Fear is born of love,” he says, “since we fear the loss of what we love.” (ST 2-2. Q. 19, a 3). “Fear can alert us to our loves in a powerful way,” he continues, and it can also conduce us to work well because it gives us greater solicitude and seriousness (ST 1-2, q. 44, a 4). Fear itself is not bad, as long as we fear what we ought to fear, and as we ought to. The problem arises when we fear things that have no power to harm us, or when we love the wrong things too much.
We are more familiar with the downside of fear. It is a serious limitation of our freedom, our vision and our ability to choose well. How often have we failed to choose the right thing because we were afraid? How often has our courage failed us and allowed us to do the lesser good?
This is true on both a personal and a social level. In a column in the New York Times, Frank Furedi says that “fear has transformed safety into one of the main virtues of society.” This is not a good thing, especially if it makes us too anxious and prevents us from acting for the good. “The disposition to perceive one’s existence as being at risk has a discernible effect on the conduct of life…it leads to a worldview which equates the good life with self-limitation and risk-aversion.” Furedi says that fear serves the interests of those in power, because it favors order and the status quo and militates against change. Ultimately it can destroy political life, because “fear becomes the story we share in the absence of any shared account of goods and goals. The only thing we have in common is what we want to avoid. Nothing draws us into the future.”
This should be a great concern to Catholics, for whom the common good, a rich set of social and political circumstances that maximize participation, allow us to achieve happiness and foreshadow the Reign of God, is central to our social teaching.
It is clear that fear is a risk to us both personally and as a culture. But I believe our tradition gives us two powerful antidotes: Contemplation and Community.
“Contemplation” is a scary word for some. It seems like it is the realm of experts, nuns and monks and mystics who have the will and the time to be contemplative. But it is a basic human discipline. If we acknowledge that human beings – religious or not – have a spiritual side, then they are called to contemplate.
Before TV, radio, cell phones, movies, rapid travel and all the rest, maybe we had more time to reflect. Some historians have explored the “history of the night,” and have found that for much of human history people had two periods of sleep. One right after sunset, and another one, a “second sleep” after an hour or two of wakefulness in the middle of the night. This “in between time” was a perfect opportunity for reflection, prayer, or contemplation. Today that time is lost to us. Have we found an alternative?
There are other words that also describe “contemplation.” Focus, for example. The contemplative life is not staring into an abyss, or lurching toward nothingness. For Dominicans it is a deep and loving look at the real. This is why study and prayer are so closely related in our tradition – indeed, they are almost interchangeable, because if we look deeply into reality, even when we study science or philosophy or art, we are bound to ask “What does this tell me of God?” This is why the frequent antagonism between science and faith is so dismaying. In the end, we are all looking for the same thing.
We might also call contemplation “mindfulness.” Psychologist Ben Williams says mindfulness is an important therapeutic tool. It has a “deep religious context as a spiritual tradition. It can be brought to any situation, and can be thought of as a manner of approaching life. It involves cultivating a present-minded focus, awareness, and acceptance of experience. It is a kind of waking up from the automatic and unconscious manner in which we typically go about our lives.” Dr. Williams said he has found the practice of “mindfulness” to be helpful to many of his patients.
Or we could simply refer to contemplation as “paying attention.” I remember someone once saying that with God’s grace erupting in life all around us, the least we can do is be there. Do we really pay attention to what is happening to us, to the world around us? Do we pay attention to our emotions, our hopes, our fears?
Community and Connection
Community is a second antidote to fear. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the media noted how “people came together” in a time of crisis. It is a sad commentary that human “coming together” has to be newsworthy. We are inherently social, and we should come together, seeking a common life. In fact, there is no other way we can live our lives as humans. We can only do so together, yet economic prosperity, travel and (especially in the U.S.) lots of physical space, allow us to entertain the illusion that we can “go it alone,” independent of one another.
Sociologist Brene Brown says “connections are why we’re here. They give meaning and purpose to our lives.” This is another way of saying that our relations with other people re the only things that matter. Being really connected also requires vulnerability, and vulnerability requires the skills of “letting ourselves be seen, deeply seen, and to love with all our hearts.”
This should not be an unusual, exceptional thing. It is the very fiber of our lives.
For St. Thomas, this idea of connection is found in friendship. There are many kinds of friendship– casual, marital, family, business – but each of them requires a certain level of commitment and vulnerability. Friendship is so important, Aquinas says, that it is really a “school for virtue.” As theologian Paul Waddell says Friends practice their love on us, and thus bring us into being in a way we could never have accomplished ourselves. A good friend is someone who draws the best out of us, someone who creates us in the most promising way. In this sense, friendship is a moral reality and perhaps the constitutive moral activity of our lives, because through it we receive from another the good the good we most devotedly love.
Aquinas finds the model for this dynamic friendship in the Trinity. “The perfect goodness of divine happiness and glory postulate friendship within God. It appears that God’s charity would not love to the utmost were he only one person, nor even if he were only two, for with perfect friendship the lover wills that what he loves should also be equally loved by another.” (Disp. de Potentia, IX, 9).
We might also describe this “connectedness” as solidarity, which we often hear of in terms of “solidarity with the poor.” It’s true that we should seek solidarity with the poor, but we need to seek solidarity with everyone. Solidarity is simply a way of saying that we believe the relations – the connections – among us are real, and that we act as though they are real. Solidarity means that we acknowledge that we have more in common with others than not, even when we are separated from them geographically, economically or socially. We share a human condition that leads us to seek connection.
What could be a stronger antidote to fear, and to the prospect of loss that gives rise to it?
Community and Mysticism
Let me conclude with a story from Thomas Merton. In his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” he describes an experience he had at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky in 1956 (a historical marker still stands at the spot). This is what he wrote:
“In Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another, even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation… I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around, shining like the sun.”
So the world is a fearful pace, but these two things – contemplation and community, both at the heart of the Dominican vocation – are important antidotes to it.
Let us deepen our ability to reflect, to focus, to “pay attention,” so that we can find God’s plan which transcends all fear. And let us deepen our connections with others, starting with those we love most deeply, and build an ever-widening circle that will lock out fear and bring us to God’s Kingdom.