“Fear of the Lord is an `alarm’ against the obstinacy of sin. When a person lives in evil, when one blasphemes against God, when one exploits others, when he tyrannizes them, when he lives only for money, for vanity, or power, or pride, then the holy fear of God sends us a warning: be careful! With all this power, with all this money, with all of your pride, with all of your vanity, you will not be happy. No one can take it with them to the other side.”
Pope Francis in his June 11, 2014 audience in St. Peter’s Square
My parents were strict. We did chores, and not for an allowance, but because we were part of a family. We had rules and curfews. I loved my parents, but I also had a healthy dose of fear for their parental authority. When I did something wrong, I was punished, but worse than that was knowing that I had let them down.
Even stronger than the fear of a parent’s authority is the fear of the ultimate authority – God. Catholics believe in life after death and when we go to confession and recite the Act of Contrition, those words have meaning: Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended thee…because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. Catholics, and most Christians, believe in a final judgment day, when each of us will stand before God and have to defend what we did on earth. We fear punishment, of course, but we also abhor alienation from God, spending eternity banned from his presence.
On earth, we seek his presence. Places of worship have been closed during the pandemic. In some quarters we hear demands that these places be reopened so that services can begin again. There’s no need for a large gathering to be able to pray. God doesn’t exist just in those religious buildings. He’s everywhere. A person can be close to God praying alone at home. In fact, it’s often in these quiet places and moments when God’s voice is heard the loudest.
One word keeps coming to me these days – humility. People who are smart, don’t need to brag about their accomplishments to others. That holds, too, with religion. How one practices their religion should be personal. Take a lesson from the gospel of Matthew which we heard during Lent: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.“
Social media makes it appear that we must trumpet our successes, post photos, invite others to comment. That now seems to have spilled over to religion. Rather than living a religious life, many feel they must make that religious life public with ostentatious displays. Doing so may increase someone‘s online following, but does it bring us closer to God? It doesn‘t matter how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers we have if we compromise ourselves and lose our soul.
In that same June address, Pope Francis said: “Fear of the Lord, therefore, does not make of us Christians who are shy and submissive, but stirs in us courage and strength!” We need that courage and strength now more than ever. I pray that we find it.
Top Bigstock photo: The Last Judgment by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel on March 08, 2011 in Rome, Italy.