During the past months and weeks, the global level of fear has risen alarmingly. Fear has been driving hundreds of thousands of refugees to risk dangerous passages by sea and land to escape the horrors of war, hunger, and persecution. Bombings in Paris, Beirut, and Bamako, Mali, and so many other cities evoke painful memories of 9/11. It seems that every day the level of "terror alert" rises in our minds, the police and military presence increase, and yet we feel less and less secure.
Some react to this state of emergency with great courage, refusing to be intimidated. They choose to go on living their lives as usual, riding subways, going to museums and theatres, sports arenas and restaurants, and even doing their Christmas shopping in large crowds. Others have become paralyzed by fear that the next act of terrorism will be at their church or synagogue or place of work or the mall. Still others spew forth harsh words that label every foreigner and refugee a potential threat to national security.
In Julian's fourteenth century there were plenty of terrors to be afraid of: the ongoing war with France, the constant threat of sabotage by sea and land, the return of marauding soldiers, outbreaks of disease that decimated the livestock, recurring crop failures resulting in famines, and last but not least, cycle after cycle of the Great Plague that struck without warning, killing its victims often within the same day or week.
Julian identifies four common types of “dread” or great fear. The first is dread of "afray,” that is, fear of sudden attack or the sound of alarm, “that comes to man suddenly through frailty [vulnerability].” This fear arises in an instant at the all-too-common “hue and cry” for help, the smell of smoke, the frantic ringing of church bells. As we now know, this elemental and instinctive fear triggers the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. Julian sees that this fear can sometimes be of benefit, for it helps to purge human beings of their self-reliant arrogance, as does the experience of bodily sickness or any other pain that
is not sinful. “For all such pains help man, if they be patiently received.”
Interestingly, for Julian the second most common fear is that of physical or spiritual pain “whereby man is stirred and awakened from the sleep of sinne.” While Julian acknowledges that human beings may indeed be shaken out of their sinful habits by meditating on the imminence of death, the pains of purgatory, and the fires of hell, she also knows from her own experience what tortures these thoughts can inflict upon sensitive souls. Still, given her deeply religious culture, she admits that, in some cases, the fear of damnation could lead the soul to throw itself on the mercy and consolation of God. “And thus this dread helps us as an approach [to God], and enables us to have contrition by the blissful touching of the holy ghost."
The third fear Julian identifies is “doubtful dread,” or doubting fear as to the completeness of God’s forgiveness, which, as Julian has described, can seduce the soul into despair. God wants to transform this dread “into love by true knowing of love” and by the working of grace: "For it may never please our lord that his servants doubt his goodness.”
The Only "Rightful" Fear
Finally, Julian comes to the fourth fear, which is very different
from all other fears. It is “reverent dread,” what we might term,
“holy awe.” She insists that this is the only fear the Lord wants us to have, because it is very gentle and lacks any hint of terror. It is inextricably linked to love.
Love and [reverent] dread are brothers, and they are rooted in us by the goodness of our maker, and they shall never be taken from us without end.
According to Julian's theology, in our essential human nature, the soul remains in eternal reverence of its Creator, and by grace, the soul remains in awe at the gift of its salvation. We are made to love and we are made to fear God in a most holy way. Julian affirms that it belongs to God’s Lordship and
Fatherhood to be thus feared, as it belongs to his Goodness (the
Holy Spirit) to be totally loved. And so it is proper to his servants both to fear and love him. And though reverent fear and love are two separate properties in us, neither one may be present without the other. “And therefore, I am seker, that he who loves, he dreads, though he feels it but little."
Julian concludes that any other fears, worries, terrors, or doubts
that the mind presents to itself, even though they might appear disguised as “holy” fears, are definitely not so. These impostors can be differentiated in a very simple way:
That dread that makes us hastily flee from all that is not good and fall into our lord’s breast, as the child in the mother’s bosom, with all our intention and with all our mind—knowing our feebleness and our great need, knowing his everlasting goodness and his blissful love, only seeking into him for salvation, clinging to him with seker [secure] trust—that dread that induces this werking in us, it is natural and gracious and good and true. And all that is contrarious to this, either
it is wrong, or it is mixed with wrong.
Julian advises her readers (as she must have advised those who
came to her anchorage window for spiritual guidance) to know all the types of dread so as to be able to separate them in their minds, choose “reverent dread,” and refuse all other fears. In the Short Text, she was very explicit as to how to discern holy fear from its enemy, like differentiating a good angel from the devil appearing as an angel of light. She testifies that the more often that "reverent awe" is felt, the more it softens and comforts the soul and gives it immeasurable rest and peace, whereas false fear “travails and tempestes and troubles.” Christ himself taught: “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16). Julian’s remedy is “to know them both, and refuse the wrong [kind of dread].” The reverent fear of God that we have in this life “by the gracious werking of the holy ghost” is the same reverence we will experience in heaven: “gentle, courteous, fully delectable.”
And thus we shall in love be homely and near to God, and we shall in reverent dread be gentle and courteous towards God, and both in one manner, the same. We should desire then of our lord God to fear him reverently and to love him humbly and to trust in him mightily. For when we fear him reverently and love him humbly, our trust is never in vain. For the more that we trust and the mightier, the more we please and worship our lord in whom we trust. And if we fail in this reverent fear and humble love, as God forbid we should, our trust will soon be misruled for that time. And therefore we need greatly to pray to our lord of grace, that we may have this reverent fear and humble love by his gift, in heart and in werk, for without this no man may please God.
In no uncertain terms, Julian is advising us not to go about in fear of what might happen but rather to concentrate all our energies on loving and trusting God "mightily" in all that we think and do and say. In God's love for us is our truest security and most reliable protection. And in our reverent fear of God -- and only God -- is our courage to live in freedom.
May we give abundant thanks for our many blessings this Thanksgiving and let go our "wrongful" fears as Julian would have us do. Let us celebrate not in fear but in love and gratitude and joyful fellowship. Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends!
PLEASE NOTE: Quotations above are from Chapter Twenty-four of Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013, 2014), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the written permission of the author.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.