Friday, March 29, 2013

Love and Fear and Love

For even true and genuine sons, ten parts of love should be mixed with five parts of fear.”  
St. Isaac the Syrian

The world is an unequal place. Some are born, as they say, with a silver spoon in their mouths; some are born into a world of need and instability. Some are born slaves, St. Isaac says, and some are born free; some are born into circumstances conducive to the flourishing of life, some struggle with death from the beginning. The world is an unequal place.

Saints such as St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom devote a great deal of their writing and sermonizing to this matter of inequity in the world and how Christians and Christian societies are to respond to it. St. John, in several homilies, argues that God allows inequity to continue even in the Church so that the faithful can acquire virtue (Christlikeness) by giving and receiving. The poor learn thankfulness and humility while the rich learn generosity and humility, thus the body of Christ lacks no virtue as all of the virtues are manifest in its care for itself.

St. Isaac the Syrian, on the other hand, reflects on this inequity from the perspective of theoria. That is, he reflects on what happens when human beings think deeply and spiritually about the inequity they experience in the world. Men and women see that this mortal life has so much random inequity, and they are led to contemplate the judgements of God and God Himself. Death is the only constant in this variable world, and death awakens in the hearts of men and women the awareness of judgement.  However, how people think about judgement and God varies too, because of the dissimilar ways of thinking and different conditions of human hearts because of the inequity in the world.

Some are driven by despair to doubt the love of God. Others, out of the self confidence that has come over them due to their success or prosperity in some area, poison themselves with deadly sins not expecting any significant consequences, not thinking of death and thus not considering the judgement. Therefore, St. Isaac concludes, that love must be mixed with fear in our relationship with God. “For even true and genuine sons,” St. Isaac says, “ten parts of love should be mixed with five parts of fear.”

Archimandrite Sophrony, disciple of St. Silouan, says in one of his letters that one of the characteristics of Christian dogma is that it always involves a paradox. God is one and three. Christ is God and man. Death has been conquered, yet we must all pass through death. I guess if the Christian teaching about reality were self evident, we wouldn’t need dogma. 

That love and fear must be together is certainly paradoxical. It is not easy and it may not feel natural to some to experience both love and fear toward someone, toward God. Yet St. Isaac says fear is necessary lest we be poisoned by self confidence.  

Ten parts love to five parts fear. That’s St. Isaac’s formula.  Fear need never overcome us. Our experience of God’s love is twice as strong. Ten parts love. Nevertheless, for the sake of our salvation in this variable world, so that we do not become over confident or puffed up due to our occasional experiences of success or prosperity, five parts fear is also necessary. Love and fear and Love. Love and fear and Love. Love and fear and Love. Like a heart beat.  And so we come to know God and reality as it really is. And so we are saved.


Anonymous said...

Hi Father Michael, as someone who has and at times continues to struggle with fear, its an ugly thing, one that terrorises and scares me but I believe that you are talking about the fear of the Lord, which is something different, correct? There is this desire in me to want to do my best by him, in my actions and in my inner life not because He scares me, but because He really is good and holy. There is quite a bit of a difference between the two for me. Mary

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Mary,
There is a certain appropriate "scariness" to reality. There are real consequences to our actions. However, the Love of God is greater than any judgement or consequence. Nevertheless, when we experience success and prosperity, and it seems as though there is no judgement, no serious consequences for our sinful actions: this is particularly when we must know and remember the fear of God. When we forget the fear of God, God becomes tame in our minds, as though we have God's number and can manipulate Him. What a delusion! The fear of God, the certainty of real consequences, real judgement, keeps us sane, keeps us in touch with what's real, even when things seem to be going our way and we have things "pretty much figured out."
On the other side, those who suffer need the comfort of God's love, the knowledge of God's forgiveness: "blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." God's love is greater than his justice; therefore, we love God more than we fear him--especially our relationship with God grows. However, as we are comforted, we are sometimes in our comfortable place tempted to sin, forgetting that God is also to be feared (respected or held in awe).

Anonymous said...

I wonder if daughters need a different formula than sons? I know the fathers use sons in a generic way, but sometimes it seems like more nuance is needed. Was he really thinking about men and women when he wrote this? Especially since he was a male monastic.

Fr. Michael said...

That's an interesting question. I don't know. It seems to me that the formula is not what is essential--because the point of the larger context is that everyone varies in his or her experience. I think the point is that as long as we are subject to temptation, a little bit of fear is appropriate in our relationship with our loving God. How much fear or love is healthy depends on the person and probably changes as one grows in Christ.