From Spiritual Formation
The Fearful Hoarders
Once there was a group of people who surveyed the resources of the world and said to each other: “How can we be sure that we have enough in hard times? We want to survive whatever happens. Let us start collecting food and knowledge so that we are safe and secure when a crisis occurs.” So they started hoarding, so much and so eagerly that other people protested and said: “You have much more than you need, while we don’t have enough to survive. Give us part of your wealth!” But the fearful hoarders said: “No, no, we need to keep this in case of an emergency, in case things go bad for us too, in case our lives are threatened.” But the others said: “We are dying now; please give us food and materials and knowledge to survive. We can’t wait, we need it now!” Then the fearful hoarders became even more fearful, since they became afraid that the poor and hungry would attack them. So they said to one another: “Let us build walls around our wealth so that no stranger can take it from us.” They started erecting walls so high that they could not even see anymore whether there were enemies outside the walls or not! As their fear increased they told each other: “Our enemies have become so numerous that they may be able to tear down our walls. Our walls are not strong enough to keep them away. We need to put explosives and barbed wire on top of the walls so that nobody will dare to even come close to us.” But instead of feeling safe and secure behind their armed walls they found themselves trapped in the prison they had built with their own fear.
Why Are We So Afraid?
The more people I come to know and the more I come to know people, the more I am overwhelmed by the negative power of fear. It often seems that fear has so invaded every part of our lives that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like. Fear pervades our bodies, individually and communally. So many people let their thinking, speaking, and acting be motivated by fear. We fear for ourselves and fear for our neighbors. We fear that something terrible may happen.
There always seems to be something to fear: Something within us or around us. Something close or far away, something visible or invisible, something in ourselves, in others, or in God. When we think, talk, act, or react, fear always seems to be there: an omnipresent force that we cannot shake off. Often fear has penetrated our inner selves so deeply that it controls, whether we are aware of it or not, most of our choices and decisions. Untamed fear can become a cruel tyrant who takes possession of us and forces us to live as hostages in this house of fear.
When fear pervades our lives, we are living in the house of fear, and from there we look out on the world. What we see from that perch of fear is alienation and scarcity. Those with power and influence often use fear to foster inner tension and divide us from one another. Those who can make us afraid can also make us do what they want us to do. Fear is one of the most effective weapons in the hands of those who seek to control us: a father, a mother, a teacher, a doctor, a boss, a bishop, a church, or God. As long as we are kept in fear we can be made to act, speak, and even think as slaves.
The agenda of our world – the issues and items that fill newspapers and newscasts – are the agenda of fear and power. What am I going to do if I do not find a spouse, a house, a job, a friend, a benefactor? What am I going to do if they fire me, if I get sick, if an accident happens, if I lose my friends, if my marriage does not work out, if a war breaks out? But here is the spiritual truth about these fearful questions: they never lead to love-filled answers; underneath every fearful question many other fearful questions are hidden. Once I have decided that in order to have a child I must be able to offer that child a college education, I get caught in many new, anxious questions involving my job, the place I live, the friends I make, and so on. Once I conclude that I cannot be happy without influential friends and money, I will remain anxious and wanting more. Thus, fear engenders fear. It never gives birth to love.
The control that fear exerts on our lives may be subtle. We may not believe consciously that everyone around us is our enemy, but we behave as if that were true. When this is our day-to-day reality, we may one day realize that we have become strangers in our own land: fearful, isolated, and powerless. Instead of self-confidence and freedom, we experience anxiety and paralysis. Instead of hope and joy, we feel an inner emptiness and sadness. Instead of living in the house of love, where God dwells, we are living in the house of fear.
The House That Love Built
When I was in Latin America among poor and oppressed people for several months, I observed those I lived with and slowly realized that they were not a fearful people. They were a simple and grateful people who lived in a fearful land. Where I saw hunger, suffering, and agony, I also found joy, gratitude, and peace. Soon I realized that the other side of oppression, the other side of poverty in the Southern Hemisphere, is the fear, anguish, and captivity of those who live in the North. Somehow these two realities cannot be separated. Our suffering, caused by fearful hoarding and lack of freedom, is not separated from the suffering and oppression of those who live in countries we call the “developing world.” Somehow in North America we’ve nearly forgotten what leads to a life of love. We’ve almost sold out our collective hopes of dwelling in God’s house of love for secured borders, security systems, and gated communities.
When Saint John so beautifully says that perfect love drives out fear, he points to a divine love that comes from God. He does not detail a strategic plan with development goals or security systems. He does not speak about human affection, psychological compatibility, mutual attraction, or deep interpersonal feelings. All of that has its value, but the perfect love about which Saint John speaks embraces and transcends all plans, feelings, emotions, and passions. The perfect love that drives out all fear is the divine love in which we are invited to participate as we learn to dwell in intimacy with the author of love. That intimate place of true belonging is therefore not a place made by human hands. It is fashioned for us by God, who came to pitch his tent among us, invited us to dwell in his place, and has prepared a room for us in his own house.
Dwelling In Love
Various words for “home” are often used in the Old and New Testaments. The Psalms are filled with a yearning to dwell in the house of God, to take refuge under God’s wings, and to find protection in God’s holy temple; they praise God’s holy place, God’s wonderful tent, God’s firm refuge. We might even say that “to dwell in God’s house” summarizes all the aspirations expressed in these inspired prayers. It is therefore highly significant that Saint John describes Jesus as the Word of God dwelling among us. (John 1:14) Not only does John tell us that Jesus invites him and his brother, Andrew, to stay in his home (John 1:38-39); he also shows how Jesus gradually reveals that he himself is the new temple. (John 2:19) This is most fully expressed in the farewell address, where Jesus reveals himself as our true home. By making his home in us he allows us to make our home in him. By entering into the intimacy of our innermost self he offers us the opportunity to enter into his own intimacy with God. By choosing us as his preferred dwelling place he invites us to choose him as our preferred dwelling place. We may wonder, Is it possible to live in the house of love, or are we so accustomed to living in fear that we have become deaf to the voice that says, “Do not be afraid?”
Don’t Be Afraid
We are not alone in needing to learn to hear that voice. “Have no fear!” resounds throughout the New Testament. Angels, when they appear, always say, “Don’t be afraid.” This word was heard by Zechariah when Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, appeared to him in the temple and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son; this voice was heard by Mary when the same angel entered her house in Nazareth and announced that she would conceive, bear a child, and name him Jesus.
By his life and ministry Jesus taught his disciples not to give in to fear. When the disciples were afraid of the great storm on the lake, Jesus was asleep in the boat! Like those early disciples, whenever the fear becomes overwhelming, we want to wake him up, anxiously saying: “Save us, Lord, we are going down.” He says: “Why are you so frightened, you people of little faith?” Then he rebukes the winds and sea and makes all calm again. (See Matthew 8:23-17) This voice was also heard by the women who came to the tomb and saw that the stone was rolled away: “Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.”
This is what the Lord says when he appears to the disciples in the Upper Room after the Resurrection: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 28:10) “I am the Lord of love, who invites you to receive, to receive gifts of joy and peace and gratitude, and to let go of your fears so that you can start sharing what you are so afraid to let go of.” The invitation of Christ is the invitation to move out of the house of fear and into the house of love: to move out of that place of imprisonment and into that place of freedom: “Come to me, come into my house, the house of love.”
The reassuring voice, which repeats over and over again, “Do not be afraid, have no fear,” is the voice we most need to hear. The voice uttering these words – fear not! – sounds all through history as the voice of God’s messengers, be they angels, or saints, and of Christ himself. It is the voice that announces a whole new way of being – a way of living in the house of love, the house of the Lord.
As Jesus travels with us in life, he teaches us how to return to the house of love. It is far from easy to grasp his teaching because we are driven to panic by looking at the impossible task, the high walls, the powerful waves, the heavy winds, and the roaring storm. We keep saying: “Yes, yes. . . but look!” Jesus is a very patient teacher. He never stops telling us where to make our true home, what to look for, and how to live. When we are distracted, we focus upon all the dangers and forget what we have heard. But Jesus says over and over again: “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. Whoever remains in me, with me in them, bears fruit in plenty. I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:4, 5, 11) Thus, Jesus invites us to live in his house of love.
Moving From Fear To Love
Prayer is the way out of the house of fear and into the house of love. Prayer helps us overcome the fear that is related to building our life just on the interpersonal – “What does he or she think of me? Who is my friend? Who is my enemy? Whom do I like? Dislike? Who rewards me? Punishes me? Says good things about me? Or doesn’t?” We are concerned about personal identity and distinctions from others. As long as our sense of self depends on what other people think about us and say about us, and on how they respond to us, we become prisoners of the interpersonal, of that interlocking of people, of clinging to each other in a search for identity; we are no longer free but fearful.
One way to pray in a fear-filled world is to choose love over anxiety, to open the door of the heart to dwell in the intimate presence of the One who loves us. When we begin to understand at a deep, spiritual level that we live surrounded by love and in communion with God no matter what the external circumstances, we can let go of the fear that lurks on the outskirts of our minds. Hardly a day passes in our lives without an experience of inner or outer fears, anxieties, apprehensions, and preoccupations. But we do not have to live in fear. Love is stronger than fear: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
Never have I seen what it means to dwell in the house of love more beautifully depicted than in the icon of the Holy Trinity painted by Andrei Rublev in 1410 in memory of the great Russian saint Sergius (1313-1392). This icon has been a helpful visual window into the house of love for me. The story behind it opens it up even more.
Long ago in Russia, there were many attacks made on a small town, and in a monastery the monks got very nervous and could no longer concentrate on their prayers because of all the violent conflicts throughout the town. The abbot called his icon painter, Rublev, to paint an icon to help the monks remain prayerful in the midst of restlessness, trouble, and anxiety. Rublev painted an icon based on the visit of the three angels to Abraham in Genesis, seated around a table of hospitality. In the icon, the figure in the center points with two fingers to the chalice and inclines toward the figure on the left, who offers a blessing. A third figure on the right points to a rectangular opening on the front of the table through which the viewer is invited to enter and participate in the spiritual actions. Together, the three figures form a mysterious circle of movement in perfect proportion. So when the monks prayed with the icon and focused on that circle of hospitality, love, and intimacy, they realized that they did not have to be afraid. When they allowed themselves to be part of the community formed by the three figures and let themselves be drawn into that circle of safety and love, they were able to pray and not lose heart.
For me, praying with this icon, releasing my fears as I focus on that little doorway in the icon that leads to where God dwells in intimacy, hospitality, and welcome, has increasingly become for me a way to enter more deeply into the mystery of divine life while remaining fully engaged in the struggles of our hate- and fear-filled world.
Dwelling Daily In The House Of Love
The challenge is to let go of fear and claim the deeper truth of who I am. When you forget your true identity as a beloved child of God, you lose your way in life. You become scared and start doing things not freely, but because of fear. But when you make space for God in your life and begin to listen to God’s loving voice, you suddenly start to realize perfect love. You can claim it, and you can gradually let go of your fear. The fear may come back tomorrow and you will have to struggle, and you can again return from fear to love. Every time you feel afraid, you can open yourself to God’s presence, hear God’s voice again, and be brought back to perfect love that casts out fear and brings in greater freedom.
Yes, it is possible not to belong to the dark powers, not to build our dwelling place among them, but to choose the house of love as our true home. This choice is made not just once and for all but by intentionally living a spiritual life – praying at all times, practicing lectio divina, and breathing God’s breath each moment. These spiritual practices and other disciplines remind us that we are the Beloved. The classical disciplines are hospitality, spiritual friendship, contemplative prayer, community forgiveness, and the celebration of life. Through regular spiritual practice we gradually move from the house of fear to the house of love. And as the psalmist proclaimed, we can “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:6)
A House of Love For All People
Moving from the house of fear to the house of love is necessary not just for each of us individually, but for the survival of the human family. If we continue to focus on our many fears – our fear of terrorists, our fear of socialism, our fear of no longer being the strongest and wealthiest nation on Earth, and many smaller fears – to justify spending more time, money, and energy to build more devastating weapons, our planet will have little chance of death wishes and death threats and search as nations for ways toward international reconciliation, cooperation, and care. We need academies of peace, ministries of peace, and peacekeeping forces. We need educational reform, church reform, market reform, and even entertainment reform that make peace its main concern. We need a new economic order beyond capitalism and socialism that makes peace and justice its entire goal. We need to believe as nations that a new international order is possible, and that the rivalries between countries or blocs are as outdated as the medieval rivalries between cities.
Can we develop a global spirituality in which the demands of the gospel guide not only the behavior of individuals but that of nations as well? Is a mass movement possible leading from fear to love, from death to life, from stagnation to rebirth, from living as rivals to living as people of God who belong to one human family? Many will consider this grand vision naïve. They are glad to accept the teachings of Jesus for their personal and family lives, but when it comes to international affairs they consider these same teachings unrealistic and utopian. Yet, Jesus sent out his apostles to make disciples not just of individual people but of all the nations and to teach these nations to observe his commandments. (Matthew 28:19-20) At the last day, Jesus will call these same nations before the throne and raise the critical question: “What have you done for the least of mine?” (Matthew 2:31-46) Discipleship goes far beyond personal piety or communal loyalty. Whole nations, not just individuals, are called to leave the house of fear, where suspicion, hatred, and war rule, and enter the house of love, where reconciliation, healing, and peace can reign.
The great spiritual leaders, from Saint Benedict to Saint Catherine of Siena to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Thomas Merton, have all grasped this truth: the power of the renewing Word of God cannot be kept within the safe boundaries of the personal and interpersonal. They call for a New Jerusalem, a new Earth, a new global community. Those who dare to join in the circle of God’s intimacy and hospitality are the new Saint Francises of our time. They offer a glimpse of a new order that is being born out of the ruin of the oil. The world is waiting for new saints – prophetic women and men who are so deeply rooted in the love of God that they are free to envision and create a new world where justice reigns and war is no more, where the old order of things has passed away. We yearn for the day when we shall dwell in love not just in moments free from fear, but fully and freely, forever.
The house of the Lord is the house of love for all people. There is a circle of safety, intimacy, and hospitality in the house of love. In that house we can slowly let go of our fear and learn to trust. In that house we can find freedom, community, and joy. Peacemaking is possible when we live in the house of love. Justice can be practiced where we live in the house of love. Ministry is effective when we live in the house of love. There we can be, and move, and trust, and love in freedom and without fear.