Friday, July 8, 2011

Fear of God?

I was 12 or 13 years old.  I had had yet another sexual experience with my best friend, Bobby, who was a year older than I was.  I was scheduled to serve Mass the next morning, so I went to confession that Saturday night.  I wanted to receive Communion at Mass, so I had to confess the mortal sin of my sex act.  The young priest, Fr. John Foley, to whom I usually confessed wasn’t hearing confessions that night.  The only priest there was the old pastor, Fr. Leo Massey.  As I stood in the long line waiting my turn, I got more and more afraid.  I felt like I was going to have an attack of diarrhea while I stood there.  Finally, it was my turn, and the screen slid back and there was Fr. Massey.  I confessed my horrible sin.  Fr. Massey asked me a lot of questions.  How often had I done such things?  Was it with one boy or several?  Had I ever confessed such a sin before?  Did I enter the body of the other boy, or did he enter mine?  After I answered all his questions, Fr. Massey, speaking for the Holy Trinity, the Forgiver of sins, told me I was a disgusting person and that I was surely headed for a life of “dissipation” (I remember that word). Then he said what I have always remembered, throughout the more than 50 years since that confession: “If you don’t love God, at least fear Him.”

Fear God.  That was easy for me to do.  My father was a fearful man.  He had some internal problem with me that made me his whipping boy.  I lived in a constant tension whenever my father was at home, never knowing when he might feel the need to attack me in his strange anger.  So, when Fr. Massey advised me to fear God, I had absolutely no problem transferring the fear I knew every day with my father to the heavenly Parent, God.

I left home at 14 to be a Franciscan friar.  I know now that part of the reason I was so anxious to start my vocation at such an early age was to get away from my father, and from the toxic family life in our home.  I did manage to get away from all that.  My life improved a thousand times over from that point on.  My father never touched me again.  What stayed with me, though, was the fear of God that was every bit as debilitating to me as had been the fear of my father.

Wikipedia, in its article on the fear of God, writes: “Throughout the Bible it [the fear of God] is said to bring many rewards. Conversely, not fearing God is said to result in Divine retribution.”  Proverbs 9/10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. . .”  In theology, I was taught that fear of God was one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In the Summa Theologica, I studied Question19, “The Gift of Fear,” where I learned from Thomas Aquinas that the highest kind of fear of God, “filial” fear (fear that a child might feel in the presence of an awe–inspiring parent) would persist even into eternal life with God in heaven.  As an habitual sinner, therefore, I was taught to have all kinds of fear of God, of God’s punishment, and of God’s eventual rejection of my sinful self.  Not only was I taught these things for my own spiritual “good,” I was taught that, as a priest, one of my jobs would be to inspire the fear of God into the people I sought to help.

Starting at age 19, when I was a Franciscan novice, I gradually formed my own idea of God.  St. Francis called his friars to know and live the Gospel, so it was from the Gospel that my personal knowledge of God developed.  I began to see God as a mystery, not a God made in man’s image, and certainly not a God made in the image of my father.  Over the years, I condensed my understanding of God to what is in the scripture at 1 John 4/16, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”  Because I knew I was gay, I left the friars, but I took with me this understanding of God.

My understanding of God, though, is just that: understanding.  It is a grasp of the concept of God by my mind.  It’s intellectual.  Deeper down, where the emotions and the indelible emotional memories live, I have always feared God, just as the little boy I used to be feared his father.  Coming to understand that dichotomy of psychological structure, by myself and with a therapist, has helped me start to move away from the residual fear.  But some of it remains.

For many reasons, I have come to a point where I have to say that I don’t know whether a god exists.  How much my uncertainty depends on my residual fear, I don’t know for sure.  I am certain, however, that fear is a part of my inability fully to believe.

I wonder about little kids and religious instruction.  Are they still being taught to fear their God?  Does the fear of God mean something different to kids who are not physically abused?  Is a life lived in fear of eternal punishment really a religious life?  Shouldn’t Christian kids be taught that the essence of the God that Jesus preached is love?  Is a life spent trying to do good not worth anything, ultimately, if the person doing the good hasn’t been taught to fear, hasn’t been taught that original sin is damning from the get–go?

As it stands now, I don’t have a whole lot of fear of god.  I do, though, have a great deal of fear of the godly. . . those who believe that fear is holy and a holy motivator.  I have a friend who is an expert dog trainer.  He can get the wildest, most undisciplined dogs to behave almost perfectly.  He tells me that the secret of teaching good behavior to dogs is two–fold: (1) overwhelm them with kindness; and (2) never make them afraid of you.  Shouldn’t the churches adopt a similar philosophy in teaching kids about god?

1 comment:

  1. If you checked Wikipedia, you saw this, I assume...It is important to note that in translations of the Hebrew Bible, "fear" is a somewhat imprecise translation of the Hebrew word "ירא," which is sometimes close in meaning to "respect" or "be in awe of."
    I would say that your sense of mystery and wonder that you found with the Friars far closer to this sense of Awe and respect, than the word fear that has been so characteristically abused in the church. I get questioning the existence of God. Makes perfect sense to me, even though I continue as a Episcopalian and take great joy in my faith. Thanks for your blog...I don't comment often - I'm in graduate school But I do read it!