Fear of the Lord: The Beginning of Wisdom

COMMENTARY: A Register series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit

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Last time in this space, we talked a bit about what the fear of the Lord is not: It is not servile or cringing fear. This is news to a lot of people in our culture — and not all of them are non-Catholics.

Still and all, it is true, and the proof of it is seen in the most perfect lover of God the Father: namely, God the Son. Jesus feared the Lord, but he did not cringe before him. Rather, he held him in awe and majesty and adored him as Abba. How could he both fear and love God?

This puzzles moderns, but there is ancient wisdom in it — and the wisdom of childhood. One of the curious things about the way we are made is that very similar physiological reactions can accompany profoundly different emotions. The same flutter in the diaphragm, sweaty palms and clammy skin that greet the words “You have cancer” can also accompany us the first time we say, “I love you.”

And so, curiously, the same sensations that accompany awe and ecstasy also accompany the experience of fear.

We see this not merely in what are commonly thought of as “religious experiences,” but in almost any situation of being confronted by wonder or great reverence or simply being in the presence of something that communicates immense beauty or power. So, as children, we might have experienced something like fear if we were brought into the presence of a hugely admired sports superstar. Untold millions of people have experienced it standing under clear skies on a summer night, looking up at the Milky Way. A visit to the Rocky Mountains can call it out of us.

It is the strangely delightful feeling of being small in the presence of the sublime. Its lifeblood is humility, but it is light years from humiliation, and only somebody who has never experienced such fear would mistake it for servile fear.

It is supremely in such fear that we discover the truth that we are taller when we bow. And it is uniquely human. No animal in the history of the world but one — a human — ever looked up at a night sky and felt wonder, which is at the root, not only of religion, but of science, art and philosophy as well.

It is upon this fact of human nature that grace builds, so that the Jewish tradition takes our experience of awe and wonder at natural things like mountain ranges, spectacular storms, august heroes and the astounding panoply of creation and says, “If creation is this awesome, how much more awesome must the Creator be?” And so Jewish sages formulate one of the most profound insights of all time: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

This is the sovereign vaccine against a million mistakes in both faith and morals. It rivets the mind on the Creator instead of making us worshippers of creatures that, while wondrous, are still less than us.

It reminds us of St. Augustine’s insight: “Question the beauty of the earth; question the beauty of the sea; question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself; question the beauty of the sky. ... Question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful.’ Their beauty is a profession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?” (Sermons, 241).

It reminds us of Jesus’ adoring words when “he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes’” (Luke 10:21).

And it leads us into the counterintuitive realization that Church Tradition is right to say that the fear of the Lord confirms us in hope.

Of which, more next time.

Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.

The series consists of the Introduction;

Wisdom: Part 1 and Part 2;

Understanding: Part 1Part 2 and Part 3;

Counsel: Part 1 and Part 2;

Fortitude: Part 1Part 2 and Part 3;

Knowledge: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5;

Piety: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3;

and Fear of the Lord: Part 1.