By DON FIER
In one of her liturgical prayers, the Church intimates why piety, the gift of the Holy Spirit we examined last week, is so essential to our spiritual life: “Lord, holy Father, . . . although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness, but profit us for salvation, through Christ our Lord” (Roman Missal, Preface IV, Weekday Mass).
As this prayer acknowledges, it is not possible for us, on our own, to fittingly venerate God with the honor and reverence He deserves. To assist us, we need the special gift of piety from the Holy Spirit, given initially in Baptism and later strengthened in Confirmation, to enable us to offer homage to our heavenly Father in a true spirit of sonship.
The gift of piety, which perfects the cardinal virtue of justice, fosters in us a filial respect for God as not only our Creator and Sustainer, but as our loving Father. It imbues within those in whom it is operative a generous and childlike love that seeks to please Him in all ways, even if suffering and sacrifice is required — and to do so willingly and joyfully.
It also fosters a loving fraternal attitude toward our neighbors as brothers and sisters in Christ. As expressed by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, the gift of piety “makes us look upon…our fellow men not as competitors in the struggle of life but coequals under God as our common Maker and brothers in Christ through the saving merits of his passion” (The Catholic Catechism, p. 204).
The gift of piety was manifested profoundly in both our Lady and her kinswoman Elizabeth in the biblical account of the Visitation. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Mary “arose and went with haste into the hill country” (Luke 1:39) to assist her elderly relative in an act of fraternal charity, even though she herself was with child. The Blessed Virgin, moreover, can be seen to exercise piety chiefly by bringing the Son of God to Elizabeth.
In turn, the mother-to-be of St. John the Baptist, through a movement of the Holy Spirit, recognizes and piously acknowledges the great favor bestowed upon her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43).
Our Lord Himself, of course, is the consummate model of the gift of piety. His filial and prayerful attitude toward His heavenly Father is recorded throughout the New Testament, strikingly so in the opening two words of the prayer He taught His disciples: “Our Father.”
It is perhaps most vibrantly shown in His invocation to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane in the midst of exceedingly intense interior suffering: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36). We, too, are called to enter into this filial sense of Jesus’ love for the Father.
We now come to the consideration of the last of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit as enumerated in chapter 11 of the Book of Isaiah, fear of the Lord. Like piety, to which it is closely related, fear of the Lord belongs to the faculty of the will. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, although last in the order of excellence among the gifts, it is first in the order of need:
“Fear,” says the Angelic Doctor, “is chiefly required as being the foundation of the perfection of the other gifts” (Summa Theologiae [STh] I-II, Q. 68, art. 7, ad 1). This is confirmed multiple times in Sacred Scripture: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Prov. 9:10; cf. Sirach 21:11). “By the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil” (Prov. 16:6). “The fear of the Lord leads to life; and he who has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Prov. 19:23).
Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, defines the gift of fear of the Lord as “a supernatural habit by which the just soul, under the instinct of the Holy Spirit, acquires a special docility for subjecting itself completely to the divine will out of reverence for the excellency and majesty of God” (Spiritual Theology [SpT], p. 262).
As Fr. Hardon expounds, it “inclines the will to filial respect for God, keeps us from sin because it displeases God, profoundly humbles us before Him, and makes us hope in His powerful assistance” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 131). It perfects the theological virtue of hope and the cardinal virtue of temperance at one and the same time.
Let us examine the various forms of fear we experience in everyday life and how, if at all, each corresponds to “fear of the Lord.” St. Thomas defines four types: worldly, servile, initial, and filial. To preface this discussion, it is important to recognize that “God in himself, as supreme and infinite goodness, cannot be an object of fear; he is an object of love. But so far as he is able to punish us for our sins, he can and ought to be feared” (SpT, p. 262).
The first type is worldly or mundane fear, where one fears the loss of a temporal good (e.g., wealth, power, honor, pleasure, etc.) more than offending God. It corresponds to a false love “whereby a man trusts in the world as his end” (STh II-II, Q. 19, art. 4). Its object is so ignoble that, according to both St. Thomas and St. Augustine, it is always evil. An infamous example, one that we recall each time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, is the worldly fear of Pilate who condemned Divine Innocence to an ignominious death in order to remain a friend of Caesar.
The second type, servile fear, although far superior to worldly fear, remains lacking in that its motive is a selfish one: Sin is avoided not out of love of God, but because of the dread of punishment. Although an imperfect form of fear that may be present even in the absence of sanctifying grace, it is substantially good in that it can lead one to repentance and to the Sacrament of Confession where an imperfect act of contrition is sufficient for forgiveness.
Next is initial fear, which represents the beginning of true fear of the Lord. The soul now experiences, so to speak, a mixture of fear of punishment and fear of committing an offense against an all-good, all-loving God. Although the sense of a fear of punishment remains, growth in charity has moved the person closer to a relationship of filial love of God. St. Thomas teaches that initial fear occupies an intermediate state between servile fear and the selfless fear that corresponds to the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. STh II-II, Q. 19, art. 2).
The fourth type of fear, filial or reverential fear, is the good and perfect fear for which the Christian should aspire. Punishment and the fear of Hell are no longer concerns; one “serves God and fulfills his divine will, fleeing from sin because it is an offense against God and for fear of being separated from him” (SpT, p. 263), even if physical death is the consequence.
Inspirational examples of fear of the Lord in operation were put before us in recent lenten readings: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego submitted to being cast into a white-hot furnace rather than worship the golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 3:8-18); Susanna overcame fear of bodily death rather than submit to the carnal intentions of two wicked elders (see Daniel 13:1-62).
Hope And Temperance
As indicated earlier, fear of the Lord perfects the virtues of hope and temperance. Hope is “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1817).
It logically follows that as we grow in filial fear, our confidence that God will enable us to share everlasting life with Him in Heaven increases. “Filial fear and hope cling together and perfect one another,” says St. Thomas. “We fear not that we may fail of what we hope to obtain by God’s help, but lest we withdraw ourselves from this help” (STh II-II, Q. 9, art. 1, ad 1).
Temperance, on the other hand, is the moral virtue which “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC, n. 1809). The gift of fear of the Lord “perfects and promotes the virtue of temperance,” explains Fr. Hardon, “because, not wanting to displease God and longing to be united with Him, we detach ourselves from false loves of the world and flee those amusements and material satisfactions which could make us lose God” (BCCC, p. 131).
Fear of the Lord, according to St. Thomas, corresponds to the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). It is through holy fear of the Lord that we are able to detach our hearts from the riches, pleasures, and honors of the world, to grow in humility, and to place all our trust in God.
Liberated from the self-exaltation of pride, fear of the Lord leads us to seek God alone; in doing so, we become supernaturally rich and able to inherit eternal beatitude.
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)