Not that there aren't plenty of reasons to be afraid: politicians and preachers are quick to bring them to our attention and use them to their own advantage. Economic insecurity in this time of recession, terrorist threats both real and imagined, the frightening reality of global climate change, the reactionary imperialism that desperately seeks to deny and delay the decline of the Pax Americana; all these and more create a climate of fear that is difficult to resist.
Our own age puts me in mind of the end of the Roman empire. The 5th. Century, too, was a time of globalization, multiculturalism, and ecological devastation. Both the external threat of "barbarian" invasion and the internal threat of social disintegration loomed large. It, too, was a time of religious diversity and upheaval.
It is not coincidental that the spirituality of the desert monks of Egypt and Syria came to full flower at this time. In an age of fear and uncertainty, the need for wise spiritual guidance gave rise to the teaching of the abbas and ammas, beautifully captured in John Cassian's Conferences. Among their most salient contributions to our own time is the reminder that, while we must begin with the acknowledgment of our fear, we can not stop there. Blessed Chaeremon said:
Three things keep men from giving themselves over to sin. There is the fear either of hell or of earthly laws. There is the hope and the desire for the kingdom of heaven. Or there is the attraction of good itself and the love of virtue . . . All three seem to tend toward the one end. They summon us to abstain from everything unlawful. But they differ from one another in their degree of excellence . . . The third is particularly characteristic of God and those who have really taken the image and likeness of God unto themselves. For only God does good, not out of fear nor in hopes of reward but simply out of love of goodness. (Conference X.6)
Faith may begin with fear - the desire to avoid punishment or secure a reward. But this is an infantile spiritual stage. Chaeremon, citing the parable of the prodigal son, sees this stage as appropriate to a slave mentality, but not for those who have realized their identity as children of God whom the Father welcomes with open arms. So fear has its place; we must acknowledge its reality. But we are invited to move beyond it.
Then we can move on to the stage of love for 'there is no fearfulness in love. Indeed perfect love expels fear, because to fear is to expect punishment and anyone who is afraid is still not perfect in love. So we are to love because God first loved us' (I Jn 4:18-19). Therefore in no other way can we rise up to true perfection. God loved us first and this was for no other reason than that we should be saved and so we ought to love Him solely for His love of us. For this reason we should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue. (Conference X.7)
There is, finally, just being in love for love's sake. When we embrace our identity as God's beloved, there is no longer anything to fear, nothing to defend, no one to appease or impress. Punishment and reward are transcended.
If with God's help and without a presumptuous reliance on his own efforts someone comes to win this condition, he will pass over to the status of an adopted son. He will leave behind servility with its fear. He will leave aside the mercenary hope of reward, a hope which seeks a reward and not the goodness of the giver. There will be no more fear, no more desiring. Instead, there will be forever the love which never fails.(Conference X.9)
Fear is real. It is inescapable. It provides us with valuable information about the reality of the world and of our interior state. But we don't need to cling to it or be defined by it. And we certainly shouldn't use fear as a club to dominate and manipulate others. Rather, our fear can move us to seek that love that liberates us so that we can live with awareness, freedom, and compassion.
In whatever small, hidden, humble ways we can, we are called to invite people to give themselves to the slow work of God within them, such that they can become agents of God’s liberating love in the world. Fearless faith is not an escape from the responsibility to ameliorate suffering. In the words of Blessed Moses:
As for those works of piety and charity of which you speak, these are necessary in this present life for as long as inequality prevails. Their workings here would not be necessary were it not for the superabundant numbers of the poor, the needy, and the sick. These are there because of the iniquity of men who have held for their own private use what the common Creator has made available to all. As long as this inequity rages in the world, these good works will be necessary and valuable to anyone practicing them and they shall yield the reward of an everlasting inheritance to the man of good heart and concerned will. (Conference I.10)