The paralysis of fear

“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” said Franklin D Roosevelt facing the economic crisis of 1933. He went on to describe it as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes…” Strong words for a strong occasion, but it may be useful to remind ourselves of the fear we encounter in our own lives, and whether its effect is negative or positive. I am not thinking here of chronic anxiety which dogs some people and requires professional attention, but the fears we encounter every day.

I am reminded of an advertisement by an American tire company. No wonder it was successful because it offered a strong price reduction. But the original price on the page and the bargain price were, by mistake, exactly the same. Since the responses were no fewer than those for the corrected version of the offer, it would seem that the attraction was the bargain rather than the actual price. This is an example of fear of loss. Many studies have shown that we are substantially more motivated by the fear of a loss than by the possibility of a gain. It explains the endless chains of advertisements which proclaim a limited time offer or the threat of stocks running out. A successful life assurance salesman told me that he would approach potential clients a fortnight before the premium increased at their next birthday. Fear of loss clinched many a sale.

Since common sense tells us that, without this fear, we could make buying decisions more objectively, we recognise its negative effect. But this example is relatively trivial so let’s think about insomnia. It is estimated that around 20 million people have sleep problems in this country. Many insomniacs report that their fear of having a bad night’s sleep has in itself become the problem. And this is increased by the prospect of the demands of the next day. Such fear becomes self-fulfilling. For the insomniac, having nothing in the diary for the next day is a boon.

Imagine that you live with your family in one of those tragic towns which are regularly subject to random bombardment. Fear is unavoidable and appropriate. But as Roosevelt suggests, if it reaches a stage of paralysis it becomes negative. Instead of taking such steps as are available to maximise safety, you sit there miserably awaiting doom. Fear has not served you well. Indeed, eradicating fear, were that possible, would be a positive advantage.

If fear is so negative in its effects we might wonder why evolution has given us such a response. Perhaps it is related to the phenomenon known as ‘fight or flight’. This is an autonomic reaction, which we share with the lower animals, to sudden danger. It releases a cascade of hormones which prepare the body for instant response. Fear, by contrast, is a condition which puts us on long term warning that we are under threat. So both fear and ‘fight or flight’ have their evolutionary uses, but only up to a point. Beyond that point they both do more harm than good.

In Bernard Shaw’s play, Joan of Arc is asked if she is in a state of grace; she replies “If I am not, may God bring me to it: if I am, may God keep me in it!” None of us knows for certain what our final fate will be, should we be run over this afternoon by a bus. And of course, as Christian morals are presented, we are faced continually by the alternatives of an eternity of bliss and an eternity of punishment. It is certainly true that the gift of free will implies that we are free to reject God, and that he will respect that choice. But, at the psychological level, the two are not balanced: our exaggerated fear of loss is likely to ensure that the prospect of damnation will loom larger in the mind, quenching spiritual growth. And this may indeed be paralysing for those who are especially vulnerable to fear.

When Professor Dawkins suggests that inculcating faith in infants is a form of abuse, I find myself agreeing with him in respect to this issue. It continues throughout the Catholic life. We are continually reminded of opportunities for mortal sin – from missing Mass on Sunday to throwing Jews into gas chambers. Or, put more correctly, we are surrounded by matters sufficiently grave that, if we adopt them with full knowledge and consent, we will damn ourselves. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing whether our knowledge is full or our consent complete. We should not be surprised that many Catholics go absent without leave and degenerate into virtuous humanism. A Christian life which is sustained by fear cannot be what God intended. Can we reconcile gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with weeping and the gnashing of teeth?

About Quentin

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69 Responses to The paralysis of fear

  1. tim says:

    “Can we reconcile gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with weeping and the gnashing of teeth? we reconcile gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with weeping and the gnashing of teeth?”

    With great difficulty. We’ll need to be highly selective about texts and church teaching. As CS Lewis points out, the doctrine of hell is dominical. “And if your eye offend you, pluck it out: it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:”

    • ignatius says:

      We were discussing this today in the study group I run:
      Matt 10.28
      “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell…”

      It reminded me of ridge walking in Wales or the Lakes..Hellvellyn or Crib Goch for example.The walk is fine and there is enough room for safety, but enough risk to focus the mind strongly and a serious fall remains possible. Fortunately there are rescuers at hand with the balm of confession…but these are conversations for adults, not for children.

  2. Brendan says:

    There is no doubt in my mind – as a person who has experienced/suffered at different stages of my life bouts of acute anxiety/ depression , and have I believe , survived through its worst ravages – that ‘ fear ‘ is now at high levels in daily life among’st our fellow travellers ; suggesting to me that the tipping point between a healthy dose of natural fear mechanisms ( anthropological ) has somehow been reached by more people than ever , to produce unnatural fear ( neurosis ) with its attendant complex psychological problems. Sometime the two can be barely distinguishable from each other.
    The difficulty in existential ‘ fear ‘ itself is to get oneself to realise it for what it is/ isn’t and then to acknowledge the fact with society . In that sense F.D.R. was right.

  3. galerimo says:

    This is a good topic you present, thanks Quentin.

    Did you say the paralysis of fear or the fear of paralysis?

    I think fear is our default position in life as human beings. I feel we have to work at cultivating a life of prayer and service to deal with it.

    I think it is an appropriate response to God because of the basic strangeness of divinity to our condition. But unlike the sort of crippling fears and dysfunctional ones my fear of God is never without attraction and desire. Like the disciples at the transfiguration. Its scary being in the presence of God

    A few weeks ago I had a hear attack and my prognosis was not good. Bypass surgery was the only option and because of both carotid arteries being blocked there was a very high risk of stroke. I was afraid and with good reason. I am now three weeks in recovery from a triple bypass and did not suffer a stroke.

    I reflect. I see how I can prepare myself for what frightens me but I have still to go through the experience. Preparation is good but it is not prevention.

    When I went through the fear of death and paralysis I felt complete protection and love. The fear never left me. Going through the experience it felt like the fear while clearly visible was on hold and a sense of peace prevailed. All thanks to God and the support of loved ones.

    My surgeon came to me after theatre and said “I would like to claim the credit for this success but let me tell you, Someone else was looking after you as well”.

    I think we are told, at times like this “Do not be afraid”. The fear is not dispelled, it remains in full view but we are “taken” through it as children of God, people of faith, people of prayer and people with all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas of our own.

    • Quentin says:

      I think the answer is that it is a vicious circle. Fear may stop us from taking appropriate action (this, I think, what FDR was describing). But the lack of action increases the fear.

      • Brendan says:

        Yes Quentin – Your take on FDR was what was first probably uppermost in his mind , as a political statement.

  4. ignatius says:


    ” I think it is an appropriate response to God because of the basic strangeness of divinity to our condition. But unlike the sort of crippling fears and dysfunctional ones my fear of God is never without attraction and desire. Like the disciples at the transfiguration. Its scary being in the presence of God..”

    Yes indeed, I don’t think we will get a much better account than this on the subject. When you think of what we are offered as children of God it is utterly breathtaking. The journey out of selfishness into full freedom and liberty, to walk with God in the cool of the morning. Not surprising that we are a bit nervous. Again I come back to rock climbing when, as a fairly young, insecure and not particularly agile young man, I had the good fortune to move into a house full of students who were all avid climbers. It was not long, with all my physical ungainliness and self doubt, I found myself scaling Tryfan in Snowdonia. Scary, yes, life changing and enhancing, certainly!

    There is one more aspect to the fear of God though, it grows worse when we stumble into sin, begins then to edge towards straightforward paralysing terror, because we have moved away from the love of the Lord and into the grip of something quite different.

  5. Brendan says:

    Wow! Galerimo , That’s exactly what I mean when exposing ‘ existential fear ‘ to …..” what it is and what it isn’t…”
    Practice and understanding of Gods place in my life ( through Catholicism ) has played a crucial part for me in doing just that ….and by the grace of God always will .

  6. ignatius says:

    “But, at the psychological level, the two are not balanced: our exaggerated fear of loss is likely to ensure that the prospect of damnation will loom larger in the mind, quenching spiritual growth. And this may indeed be paralysing for those who are especially vulnerable to fear…”

    This is an odd thing to say because it indicates that persons of an anxious disposition may not make spiritual progress in life…surely not guv?

    • St.Joseph says:

      I have often wondered about the Gift of the Holy Spirit ‘Fear of the Lord’
      We love the Lord with our whole heart and soul how does ‘fear ‘come into it fear of losing our soul. and going to Hell.
      We can not be presumptuous, but neither must we despair .

      • pnyikos says:

        If I recall correctly, the original use of the term “fear of the Lord” is in the Old Testament, before there was any mention of hell, but the general belief was in sheol, a hades-like place where essentially everyone went, or else of annihilation at death.

        I have often wondered about just what sort of fear the saying, “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord,” is talking about. In moments of (very) temporary craziness I even invented a number of esoteric meanings which I don’t think it worth repeating here. I think in its most basic form it means having a sufficiently respectful attitude towards seriously spiritual and moral matters.

        I would say, for example, that the book Your God Is Too Small is sufficiently respectful, whereas Religion May Be Hazardous To Your Health is not, because the author seems to be of the opinion that religion is something that is purely subjective. My overall reaction, when I read that book in 1975, was “What the author says may be literally true, but there is no fear of the Lord in this book.”

      • St.Joseph says:

        Maybe when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden where it may have been Heaven ,as we call it, then they were banished to Earth where mankind could reconcile ourselves to God again,
        Given the 10 Commandments, they would have some kind of structure build their relationship and live happily ever with God in Heaven , however we still needed a Saviour, and God sent His only Son to Sacrifice His Life for us to be able to live in Paradise again with Him forever .He opened the Gates of Heaven and closed the gates of Hell,
        Only a thought!

      • St.Joseph says:

        Isn’t that what we are supposed to believe anyway.

      • tyke says:

        St Joseph
        “Given the 10 Commandments, they would have some kind of structure build their relationship and live happily ever with God in Heaven”
        All of bible history demonstrates that we’re unable to follow the law, and that we needed Jesus to come and wipe the slate clean.

        A couple of thoughts:

        (1) If we had been capable of following God’s law, then by doing so we would ‘save ourselves’, and so we fall into the pelagian heresy. But our salvation is freely given by Jesus, as you point out, and leads to adoption as children of God, which is far more impressive than the mere forgiveness of sins. Had Adam not fallen, had we been able to obey God’s law, could we have expected as much?

        (2) Because we are incapable of obeying the law in it’s perfection, and because we are saved by the blood of Jesus, it’s not reasonable to succumb to the ‘paralysing fear’. God knows our limits, but I have often felt that he keeps pushing us over them, a little further each time.
        On the other hand it’s vital to cultivate that fear that @pnyikos mentions — the deep loving reverence. Without that fear, we distance ourselves from God, and we’re already in a state of hell.
        So the only thing that we need to fear is a lack of fear (as it were)!

      • tyke says:

        St Joseph (see comment below)
        “Yes I believe that we ought to fear offending God for His own sake instead of being selfish for our own selfish sake..”

        Very much so. To take a rather simplistic analogy: it’s not the fear of offending a policeman, but the fear of offending a lover. In the first case I’m afraid of the hurt that may come to me as a result of the offence. In the second I’m afraid of the hurt to the Other.

        As our ‘god-fear’ grows deeper, the importance to us of the Other surpasses our self-importance, and the energy that was directed to our own selfishness is now redirected outwards. So we progressively stop being selfish, not because it’s bad, but because it’s irrelevant. (At least that’s my working theory).

    • Quentin says:

      Ignatius, I think the problem you have refers to a number of things. For instance your parents’ upbringing may have helped or hindered your devotion. A tendency to violent actions might be present in someone’s temperament. We may hope that God will allow for such things, but that should not stop us from trying to control our tendencies.

      • ignatius says:

        Sorry Quentin but you will have to flesh out your reply a little as it is a little too compressed for me to understand:
        “I think the problem you have refers to a number of things.”
        Is this a general statement or does it refer to me in particular?
        ” We may hope that God will allow for such things, but that should not stop us from trying to control our tendencies…”
        ” tendencies to what?”

      • Quentin says:

        Sorry I didn’t express myself so that you could understand.

        Certainly not intended personally. I had in mind that all of us have tendencies which affect the ways in which we turn to God. These are tendencies in the natural, not supernatural order, which may inhibit our devotion. I see our broad tendency to avoid loss rather than focussing on the good as one of these. And some are more liable to this than others. I am certainly susceptible to this.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Yes I believe that we ought to fear offending God for His own sake instead of being selfish for our own selfish sake..
        I feel strongly with regards to the Worship of God on Sundays the Lords Day by putting ourselves before The Lord, when there are those who give their whole lives for Him and His Holy Church.
        It may be impossible to go to Holy Mass but otherwise I do think it is the lack of what Jesus died and suffered for !

  7. Brendan says:

    Ignatius 3.56pm – Assuming here one is limited to dealing with the ‘ normal ‘ fear/anxiety experienced by us all in everyday life and not those ” especially vulnerable to fear ” ; of course we have Christ himself as example and divine mentor in this respect undergoing His Passion………” In his anguish he prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.” Luke 22:43-44.(NJB).
    It is curious that Luke, in his own literary way, is the only writer to have recorded this particular moment of fear( dread ) during Our Lords Passion. Footnotes to this extract (NJB ) reads thus :- ‘ They are attested by many witnesses from as early as the second century, and represent the style and manner of Luke. Their omission is explained by concern to avoid a humiliation of Jesus which seemed too human.’
    I infer from this , that Christ – who emptied Himself completely to take on fully , mankinds human identity – has shown us that complete faith and trust in God ( Our Father ) is at least entirely probable ( in Christs case certain )

    • Brendan says:

      ……….I’m not sure what happened there , but I’ll try and pick up where I left off !
      contd. …in their pleas being rewarded.

  8. Brian Hamill says:

    For myself I find that fear of consequences is an excellent antidote to laziness. If I do not get off the computer and do my homework, there will be unpleasant consequences. If we do not forgive others as my heavenly Father forgives me, there will be dire consequences. The Fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of Wisdom but it is not the end. That is achieved when we fix our gaze on Jesus and become aware of the Love of God made manifest in him. Fear is fundamentally self-centred. Love is other-centred and that is what lasts forever.

  9. St.Joseph says:

    what is the difference between fear and being scared.
    when I was about 12 I used to ride my bike down to a shop for the evening paper,
    I had to pass a place where a murder took place about a few weeks back.
    I was not scared of being murdered as the murder was related to a break up of a relationship, however every time I cycled past the spot on the road, I cycled very quick. and felt peculiar Looking back on that now It would have been better if I had said a prayer for the victim. As we pray for the dead and the boy who murdered her, It was a vicious crime and he gave himself up.

    • Brendan says:

      I love to hear you little anecdotes St.Joseph…. they exude simplicity and truth !
      ‘ Fear ‘ of course is a first cousin to the state of being ‘ scared ‘ – derived from similarly unpleasant sources. I would say that ‘ fear ‘ is a result of a sense of personal threat , and is the natural response ( rational ) of the mind to alert one to the possibility of present danger. ‘ Scared ‘ is a sudden fright which is not necessarily rational in its composition , seemingly having its ‘ genesis ‘ in something past …. for example arising from your childhood memory/ experience. To be ‘ human ‘ in one sense , is I believe to have a healthy dose of both …. for the sake of ones sanity?

  10. Iona says:

    I think of “the fear of the Lord” in terms of awe, rather than dread.

    • ignatius says:

      Mathew ch 10:
      “..v27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell…”

      ” There is a sense that the fear of God is a direct, visceral, fear. I do not want to be punished, with eternal damnation or anything else come to that,. I believe God has power over me therefore I will try to avoid that which displeases God and I will try hard to obey God. However I know also that God has regard for my condition, I also know God is merciful and does not punish according to the measure my sins deserve. From what I can see and have been taught God is kind, merciful and just, slow to anger swift to forgive, so I will do my very best to trust and nurture relationship with this kind God; but I will not forget that this God is also the judge of my soul.
      In the depths of my heart I believe and experience God to be Love in it purest sense, love almost as an elemental force, however I understand that such a love will have holiness justice, and truth as handmaids, for the love of God cannot be anything other. So I will seek after this God with as much of my heart and soul that I can muster at any one time. Doing so I will walk both in humility and trust but also with an element of caution lest I be deceived into the sin of presumption, this needful caution is also part of Gods provision for me.”

      I’m just trying out the above as an answer to the question Quentin posed:
      ““Can we reconcile gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with weeping and the gnashing of teeth? we reconcile gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with weeping and the gnashing of teeth?

      Please feel free to assent or dissent/ revise as appropriate. I have to deal with this question a lot in prison ministry so I would be grateful for input.

  11. Brendan says:

    Ignatius , Quentin – Regarding the psychological ‘ imbalance ‘ , that can be caused by an excessive state of ‘ fear ‘ in a person coupled with a rejection of God through ‘ free will ‘ , manifested by those who are vulnerable in that state ; I would say that …….” but he ( Jesus ) has answered me [Saint Paul] , ‘ My grace is enough for you : for power is at full stretch in weakness.’ … Cor.12:8-9 (NJB).
    God always looms large in our ‘ weakness ‘ then whatever our mental/physical state. It is only through knowing and willing to deliberately reject God that ” damnation will loom large .”
    Most of us I suspect like St. Paul will exclaim….” there but for the grace of God …..”. This ‘ imbalance ‘ took a heavy toll with me . But that’s when I rejoice to find God at His strongest – like others need to ” control ones negative tendencies ” , foistered or inherited ” – and return to some sort of psychological equilibrium in my ‘ free’ state….. secure in His domain ( The Kingdom of God ) on Earth.

    • ignatius says:

      Yes, this is the point. Anxiety alone shouldn’t keep us from God because God works at a deeper level.This is the flaw in Quentins proposition. Also it was just that excessive fear which drove some of the saints: Ignatius of Loyola for example, possibly Augustine too into grace. There is something wrong with the argument Quentin is proposing.

      • Quentin says:

        Ignatius, I suspect here that you think terms of two, separate things: soul and body. I would argue that we are soul/body – that is the two elements interpenetrate at every point. The soul is the form, or life (anima) of the body. We may talk of them as separate things but in fact they are all the same totality seen in different aspects. Of course this is mystery because our dumb human minds. Certainly fear can bump people into turning to God but both Ignatius and Augustine were jolly odd people – who would have been better off coming to God through love rather than fear.

      • Martha says:

        This makes me think of the old fable of the Sun and the Wind. They had a competition to see which of them could succeed in getting a weary traveller to dispense with his cloak. The Wind blew hard and cold, and the traveller wrapped his cloak around him the more tightly. Then the Sun tried in his turn and shone bright and warm, and it was not long before the traveller removed his cloak and went happily on his way without it.

  12. Brendan says:

    Unfortunately , our ” natural ” negative tendencies can be fostered by unsatisfactory Spiritual Teaching , emphasising ones ‘ fear ‘ of something ( to imagine loss over gain ) rather than the balance which true Church Doctrine ( Catholic ) should engender.
    I’m thinking here of how badly/inadequately over -time the Church has handled the reality of ‘ Hell ‘ as a proposition.

  13. St.Joseph says:

    I always thought that the weeping and gnashing of teeth were the suffering souls in Hell, also Instead. ‘fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in Hell’ to be Satan Perhaps you mean Jesus as you wrote One with a Capital
    Do you mean that too?.

  14. ignatius says:

    St Joseph,
    No, it is God whom we are to fear according to this. I don’t think any commentary will say anything else. I have used Jesus’ words here simply to make the point that our modern tendency to replace ‘fear’ as in the sense of ‘be afraid of’ with ‘have awe and reverence for’ is a little over optimistic in parts. Attempting to water down the difficult sayings in the bible is what we tend to do, but inn the context of this question it is relevant. If there were not the possibility of Hell then there would be no fear, because we are fallen we need the fear and, because we are fallen, the fear is grounded in reality.

    • St.Joseph says:

      I am just thinking of the prayer we say after each decade of the Rosary
      ‘I love you my Beloved Jesus, I love Thee more than myself, never permit me to separate myself from You again, grant that I may love you always,and then Do with me what Thou Wilt!
      Jesus I Trust in You.!
      There are two kinds of love as the Catechism tells us, ‘Imperfect love for God-because of the fear of Hell and Perfect love for the Lord Himself.
      I associate that with probably by Quentins quote from St Joan of Arc.


      • St.Joseph says:

        I missed out above -‘ I repent with my whole heart for ever having offended Thee,never permit me etc

      • Martha says:

        St. Joseph, we say, O my Jesus, forgive us out sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy,
        which is the Fatima prayer, and one which I find very consoling.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Thinking about your comment and what came to mind and correct me if I am wrong as ‘chemo brain’ appears now and again, Maybe those who kill Christians believe they are doing it for God and they fear Hell, They perhaps do not know Jesus!

  15. St.Joseph says:

    When I said the Rosary after Mass this morning I knew I had said the wrong one,
    I say that after the Stations of the Cross,
    Thank you..

    • Martha says:

      I didn’t intend it as a correction, St. Joseph, like a teacher marking school work, so my apologies if you thought you were seeing red ink! It was thinking that the Fatima prayer is very relevant to the current discussion, and that I appreciate asking Our Lady to lead ALL souls to Heaven, and to have especial care for those of us who feel we are in great need of mercy. I had written another comment on the subject last week as it included a reference to sermons.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Martha.I am sorry if I made it sound like that.
        I would always appreciate if someone corrects me, as I can get confused at times I am used to it and appreciate it. I would have felt awful if I realised it later on.
        I mentioned it to Ignatius, so as he would know. It will get better I am told as soon as the chemo gets out of my system.

  16. Alasdair says:

    At the “top of the blog” Quentin said “A Christian life which is sustained by fear cannot be what God intended”. No indeed – but it is what Satan intended, because it is not a Christian life at all. “Our exaggerated fear of loss is likely to ensure that the prospect of damnation will loom larger in the mind, quenching spiritual growth” – I couldn’t agree more. A Christian life is driven by love of God, not by fear of punishment.
    By analogy, our parental life is driven by our love for our children, not by a dread fear of a knock on the door by the Local Authority Children’s Services.

    • Martha says:

      Yes, Alasdair, I think it is hardly possible to stay sane if one really thinks there is any possibility of being in torment in Hell for all eternity, and I have found it makes one very selfish, concentrating on the fear of saving one’s own skin, rather than on positively loving God and wanting to live one’s life in thanks and praise.

      • ignatius says:

        I’m definitely sane, according to the 3 day battery of psychometric tests fom my ordination selection at least. I’m a bit neurotic but hey who is perfect??!! Yet I can face a longish stay in purgatory with equanimity if thats any help….at least until recently when I’ve noticed a growing interest in plenary indulgences!!

  17. Brendan says:

    I came across a well-balanced discourse on the internet given by EWTN Catholic Q&A’s on the
    subject of the fictitious biblical story , headed …..” The Rich man and Lazarus , a question from Peter Cole ” ; giving the basis of a sound Catholic explanation of ‘ hell .’
    Of Course in St.Matthew’s Gospel ( Chapter 5 ) Jesus , The Lord of the New Covenant ( in his own Jewish tradition ) left us in no doubt what awaited the unrepentant sinner who had defied purification – the unbridgeable ” fires of hell ” ( Gehenna ).
    It is fairly common nowadays to hear an assortment of Christian churchgoers who hold the view seriously , that if one has served ones life in some kind of ‘ living hell ‘ in this world , then one is somehow exempt ( in some strange twist of Divine Mercy ) from the possibility of eternal damnation in the next . Unfortunately , Catholic Teaching is sometimes adulterated with what I can only describe as ‘ kitchen-sink sociology ‘ in this respect. There is a thriving market today ( given our age of unbelief ) led by spiritual advisers of an eclectic frame of mind , acting as ‘ life -style ‘ experts ….. sadly, Catholics are not immune to being deceived by this mistaken phenomenon ; and given that , I am no longer surprised at any quarter from which these ‘ humanistic ‘ notions see the light of day.
    Cardinal Robert Sarah in his latest book , ” God or Nothing ” is more direct :-
    ” The idea of putting magisterial teaching in a beautiful display case while separating it from pastoral practice , which then could evolve along with circumstances, fashion , and passions , is a sort of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology. “

  18. Brendan says:

    Ignatius – Can I take you up on your ” Gentle Jesus meek and mild …” scenario .
    In pursuit of the ‘ Jesus of history ‘ , this phrase , followed by …” look upon a little child ” …, ( Hymn by Charles Wesley ? ) would seem to be a saccharine, ‘ namby-pamby ‘ version of the character of Jesus , much beloved by liberal-Protetantism in a bygone time. Certainly , this could not be construed from St.Matthews Gospel or even the more softer, caring, ‘ physician-like ‘ approach of St.Luke.
    Of course this would not necessarily help you in the kind of work I assume you are dealing with , in the manner of souls seeking , but at the same time possibly ‘ damaged ‘ during their lives; but one consequences in feeding dross , is to engender false hope .
    The approach Pope Francis favours – indeed looks to spell out the mark of his pontificate is one of forgiveness. Just recently at Assisi he said :- ” Too many people are caught up in resentment and harbour hatred because they are incapable of forgiving .” The first need of any of us is to experience God’s forgiveness ourselves and then it will emerge we can forgive others.
    To this end I quote 1 John 4:18 et al……”
    ” In love there is no room for fear,
    because fear implies punishment
    and whoever is afraid has not come to perfection in love,…” (NJB)
    Footnote – Love presupposes the filial element of religious fear, but it excludes servile fear, the fear of being condemned by God, who has in his Son given such proof of love.

  19. ignatius says:

    “Footnote – Love presupposes the filial element of religious fear, but it excludes servile fear, the fear of being condemned by God, who has in his Son given such proof of love…”

    Perhaps you can give us a little insight into : ‘the filial element of religious fear’ ? What is it? How would it manifest itself? What occasions would bring it to the fore? how would it feel?

    I must confess to being a little puzzled by the way none of you seem to want to accquiesce to the notion that a little judicious straightforward fear of God might be appropriate. Have none of you read the Old Testament? How about Annias and Sapphira inthe New testament? How about the Book of Hebrews in Chapter 2:
    ” 1We must pay closer attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every transgression and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”

    The last time I crossed Striding Edge on Helvelyn, or once going across the Cuillin ridge on Skye even though I was on the correct path I paid careful attention lest I fell, and the fear of falling was real and genuine. Why would it be otherwise with God? We know we are offered a great salvation and we know we have to work it out as we go; we hope for heaven but recognise that our destination is uncertain, as Quentin puts it:
    “None of us knows for certain what our final fate will be, should we be run over this afternoon by a bus. And of course, as Christian morals are presented, we are faced continually by the alternatives of an eternity of bliss and an eternity of punishment…”
    So why shouldn’t we fear God? Doesn’t mean we can’t love God but it does mean we need to recognise that our actions might have consequences, that fear of consequence, pure and simple dread in other words, definitely has its place in the toolbox of faith. Yes it might be the case that perfect love drives out fear, and it does, but none of us are perfect yet. Yes it might have been better if Augustine and ST Ignatius were different than they were, but they were’nt, they were fractured human beings, like ourselves and aware of their lack.

  20. ignatius says:


    “Ignatius, I suspect here that you think terms of two, separate things: soul and body. I would argue that we are soul/body – that is the two elements interpenetrate at every point. The soul is the form, or life (anima) of the body. We may talk of them as separate things but in fact they are all the same totality seen in different aspects…”

    Again , Quentin, you need to bolster your point with a little elaboration, otherwise it comes across simply as a red herring.
    As it happens my view of the human being is far more corporeal than most persons. This comes from 30 years of being an Osteopath and a tutor more than anything else. This has involved rather a lot of enquiry into the world of soma and psyche, not to mention dissection!!. I guess I am coming to the conclusion we are embodied spirits more than anything else and that which we call ‘mind’ or ”soul’ is largely corporeal in nature.
    But I still don’t see what your point is, please explain again.

    • Martha says:

      Ignatius, there is a huge difference between the purification of Purgatory where we will know that God and Heaven await, and the absolutely terrifying prospect of total never ending eternity in Hell. I don’t think it takes much imagination to see that there is no comparison, and I stand by my view, with great confidence in the mercy of God, which the Church has ways taught but is re emphasising now.

      • Martha says:

        You can compare the wonderful words of Newman’s Dream of Gerontius and Elgar’s sublime music, with the Dies Irae, piercingly sung in Plainchant, and with terrifying urgency in Verdi’s Requiem.

  21. ignatius says:


    But there, you have said it!
    ‘The absolutely terrifying prospect of total never ending eternity in Hell’
    See how the mere mention is enough to stir the resolve! The slightest consideration enough to firm the will to good and defend the God you love? That’s how it is and that’s how it should be. Of course none can live sanely who truly believe Hell is their destination, though I guess one or two live thus, in a state of hard edged despair and mocking cynicism, typified of course by the unrepentant thief on the cross. Of course you you stand by your view with great confidence, because of your faith that is, but Hell remains a real possibility.

    • Martha says:

      I think your previous analogy of walking along a ridge is very useful, and bears contrast with the thought of our prospects as we approach death.

      I do not think that God wants me to “have no way of knowing,” and to be fearfully wondering at that time, while I am still conscious, will I be soon with Him, even though joyfully if painfully undergoing more purification first, or will He be casting me far from Him, away to an endless eternity of unimaginable suffering?

      For such a walk, I would prepare, wear suitable clothing, especially footwear, make use of railings and other assistance on the way, and be sure to go with sensible companions, as I know I would not be able to manage it on my own. We would rely on each other for help if we were to stumble, have a dizzy spell, be attacked by rabid dogs or terrorists. With such arrangements and precautions, I would be reasonably confident of managing the journey and reaching my destination, and not unduly fearful of disaster, and coming towards the end, I could reasonably anticipate my safe arrival.

      I imagine this is what you would consider a realistic and reasonable approach, combining our own efforts, with a loving trust in God’s love and mercy. Unfortunately, unsuitable teaching and presentation, especially in childhood, can make it a lifetime of effort to achieve, but perhaps this too is all part of God’s plan for his beloved and complicated children.

  22. ignatius says:

    Martha, Yes, that would be about it, You can fall off if you really want to but its not in the plan!!

    As to your last paragraph, I don’t know. I was on retreat at St Bueno’s awhile ago and a priest there was recounting with sadness the way that 7 year old children were brought to him for confession and the liturgy used was not’I have greatly sinned’ but ‘I have not loved Jesus enough’
    I remember being shocked at the time and thinking how sad that children should be thus treated.

    On the other hand, to even have begun to reach a ‘balanced view’ of God has taken me till now in my 63rd year and my early background was non religious (but not less fearful for that)..Who can say, Martha. 🙂

    • St.Joseph says:

      You say ‘my early background was non religious’.
      Would you believe now that if you had died as a teenager but was a good living person you would have gone to Hell?

  23. ignatius says:

    St Joseph,
    I wasn’t a good person.

    • ignatius says:

      St Joseph,
      But in answer to your question, no, I don’t believe it now and, atheist that I was, I never believed it then.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Thank you This may be a too personal question to answer, so I will understand if you don’t. I take it then by what you say ,it was Jesus that brought you to Christianity and not the fear of Hell?

  24. John Nolan says:

    Those who attend Sunday Vespers will be familiar with psalms 110 and 111:

    Sancte et terribile nomen ejus: initium sapientiae timor Domini.
    Beatus vir, qui timet Dominum: in mandatis ejus volet nimis.

    The fear that makes one not merely keep his commandments, but delight in them is not a negative fear; ‘timor’ in Latin also has connotations of awe and reverence.

    Fr Faber wrote: ‘Do more than pardon, give us joy,/Sweet fear and sober liberty’ in a hymn which is (sadly) hardly ever sung these days. It refers to ‘gentle Jesus’, but the ‘meek and mild’ bit is too redolent of Victorian Sunday-school sentimentality; like ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’.

  25. ignatius says:

    John Nolan:

    Hebrews ch 10:
    “26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

    How does the ‘fearful’ expectation translate, John ?

    • John Nolan says:

      Bishop Challoner’s comment:
      ‘He speaks of the sin of apostasy from the known truth; after which, as we cannot be baptized again, we cannot expect to have that abundant remission of sins, which Christ purchased by his death, applied in the ample manner as it is in baptism; but we have rather all manner of reason to look for a dreadful judgement; the more because apostates from the known truth seldom or never have the grace to return to it.’

  26. ignatius says:

    St Joseph,
    To be honest St Joseph I don’t know how I got here..! I hope and believe that my name was called and I have been only partially deaf to that calling. But it certainly wasn’t through the fear of hell.

  27. tyke says:

    “A Christian life which is sustained by fear cannot be what God intended.”

    I don’t think that a Christian life sustained by the expectation of a ‘reward’ for good behaviour can be what God intended either.

    The whole reward / punishment dialogue is a somewhat childish, but perhaps necessary step to explore the relationship between God and ourselves. But we wouldn’t want to stay there. When I was small, my parents used punishments and rewards to teach me how to behave in a socially acceptable way. But my respect for them doesn’t depend on either. And my behaviour now depends more on what I understand to be socially acceptable than on threats and promises.

    A mature Christian approach is surely based on a response to the love of the Father revealed by Christ: “I am a Christian because He loved me first”.

    Is it better to go to hell loving God, or to go to heaven hating God? The question only has any sense in a reward / punishment paradigm. I think that we all recognize its self-contradiction.

  28. Geordie says:

    Good comments Tyke. However I think your comment in the last paragraph is impossible.

  29. Brendan says:

    It is part of the human condition to ‘ fear ‘ – but why paralysing fear ? We derive our very being and complete trust from God in His bounty towards us ( however undeserved ) , made as we are in his ‘image and likeness.’ – hence to the full saint or mystic the debilitating effects of extreme fear would seem to be an alien concept , as seen by others.
    Outside of the usual psychological reasons to propel one into a neurotic fear , one can suppose that the ‘ times ‘ ( for most of us at least some of the time ) we live in , may have something to do with its extreme effects. Normal fear experience can become an existential fear with concomitant paralysis of thought ( dread ) for the future , when the overwhelming fear of the ‘ unknown ‘ ( whether ones life has any meaning , purpose or value ) is afoot in us .
    ( I personally recall dropping to my knees in urgent supplication and surrender in past moments of anguished dread !)
    For the Christian then , given what is ‘ on offer ‘ from God compels one ( if only through primeval ‘ bolt hole ‘ reasoning ) to resolve this ‘ crisis ‘ of existentialism through life giving ‘ Faith in Christ .’ – the ultimate meaning. The only other answer is to face it out to the bitter end – the absurdity of Camus, Sartre ?
    Whether societies/individuals today are socially too ‘ elastic ‘ and now too estranged from each other to benefit from the adhesion of collective norms ( religion ) : it would seem that these effects forming part of ‘ modernism ‘ are conducive to ‘ throwing-up ‘ this human condition ( existential dread ) – perhaps now more extreme than in times past.

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