The Most Misunderstood Gift: Fear of the Lord

Speak about fear of the Lord and many people, Catholics among them, will shy away as though one were some kind of crazed fundamentalist whose religion is a mass of prohibitions and punishments. My own religion isn’t of the ‘anything goes’ variety, but it is also not of the craven and cringing variety, either. There is a servile, anxious fear, unworthy of God, many associate with Christianity — but that is not what is meant by the biblical fear of the Lord or the seventh gift of the Holy Spirit we are considering today. The fear of the Lord, properly so called, fulfils or perfects the virtue of hope in us. It makes us want not to offend God but, rather, to obtain his promises; and we couldn’t do that did we not hope. It is a beautiful, luminous gift. Misunderstood though it often is, the fear of the Lord keeps us going through thick and thin, which is precisely what we, as members of the Church, are called to do.

If we look at the Church’s traditional teaching on the fear of the Lord, we find that it is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9.10) as, for St Benedict, it is the first rung on the ladder of humility (RB 7.10). That doesn’t mean it is a gift for beginners only, something that sets us on our way but which we can conveniently forget once we have made a little progress. On the contrary, the fear of the Lord is fundamental to our love and reverence for God, something that grows greater and greater the nearer we become to him. The ancient Israelites, like the Jews of our own day, had a profound reverence for the holiness of God — so much so, that his name was never pronounced. Something of that same awe should mark us, too. Whenever we say, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘hallowed be thy name,’ we are reasserting the absolute holiness of God and expressing our loving and reverent fear of the Lord in union with the whole Church. That is a great gift, and one for which we pray today.