The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
─ Psalm 27:1
“Be not afraid!”
Several times in the Bible these words are spoken either by Christ to His disciples, or by angels to those chosen for some task. “Do not be afraid!” the angel Gabriel said in greeting to Mary. “It is I,” Christ called out to his terrified disciples, as He walked on the waters. “Do not be afraid!”
Pope St. John Paul II adopted these words as his unofficial motto. Even still I can hear his booming, accented voice, over the heads of enormous crowds: “Be not afraid!”
And when he said it, somehow, you were no longer afraid. Suddenly, you knew that allowing fear to dominate your heart was a betrayal of the gift of the Gospel and stemmed from a lack of trust and faith.
“Perfect love casts out all fear,” wrote St. John, the beloved apostle, the one who reclined on Christ’s breast at the Last Supper, who listened to the heartbeat of Truth Himself.
A Worldly Focus Stokes Fear
We, however, are living in a world consumed by fear. We are afraid of this virus. We are afraid of the economic and social toll it has taken. We are afraid of the growing social unrest. We are afraid what will happen if our political enemies win. We are afraid of one another. We are afraid of what will happen if we boldly speak the truth.
The worst of it, however, is that it often seems as if there are powerful people and institutions who want us to be afraid, and who – whether intentionally or not – are actively stoking our fear.
The news media, to begin with. People who are afraid will watch hours of network TV, scroll endlessly through their social media feeds, and opt in to all the “breaking news” alerts on their smartphones, lest they miss out on any crucial development. The media knows this and reports every disturbing new development in the direst terms. Since there is never any shortage of terrifying events in this world of ours, the paradoxical effect is that the more a person keeps up with the news, the more fearful he becomes, and the more news he feels compelled to consume.
Politicians, too, long ago learned that fear is their most powerful weapon. Instead of telling their supporters of the positive things they will do if elected (which involves the hard work of actually developing a plan), it is often far more effective for politicians simply to paint as terrifying a picture as possible of what will happen if their opponents win. Make people sufficiently afraid of the other side, and there is scarcely anything a politician can do (or not do) that will lose him the support of his followers.
The entertainment and retail industries, too, benefit from fear. A fearful population is a population that craves distraction and pleasure. Someone who is afraid will binge-watch Netflix for hours, just to escape the discomfort of being alone with his own distressing thoughts. Or he will scroll Amazon, buying things that he hopes will temporarily soothe his anxiety. The porn industry, too, is always but a click away, offering people who are bored, anxious and afraid one of the most potent distractions ever invented.
To live in fear is to live in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight mode; it is to live not only in, but for, the moment. A person who is afraid lacks the mental and spiritual space to think about or be concerned with anything but the immediate threat. Nothing else seems interesting, or of any importance. And this is why people who are afraid are so vulnerable to the manipulations of unscrupulous politicians, snake oil salesmen, conspiracy theorists and spiritual hucksters – anyone who claims to have privileged access to the truth, or to be in possession of some easy solution to the problem, or some shortcut to making them forget their fear.
Fear is the Great Lie
As Christians, we must resist this culture of fear.
Fear does nothing but cloud our minds and disturb our souls. And for this reason alone, it must be eschewed. But more importantly, we must eschew fear because it isn’t true. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” said Christ. “Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
St. Paul gives a remarkable rationale for the fearlessness of the Christian, when he wrote: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If St. Paul is right that nothing can separate us from God, then our fear is always baseless. Indeed, it is the Great Lie told by the Great Deceiver – the lie that evil is more powerful than good, the devil more powerful than God.
In this column, I often write about many troubling things: abortion, euthanasia, the assault on marriage and family life, failures in Church and civil leadership, wolves prowling about dressed in sheep’s clothing, the machinations of rich and powerful agents of the culture of death, and the growing threats to the freedoms of Christians.
On the one hand, I believe it is important for us to know about these things, so that we can combat them. On the other hand, I believe that the minute we lose our sense of perspective and begin to believe that these things are more powerful than Christ, the minute we begin to be afraid of them – that is the minute that we must withdraw from the fight to regroup. For in that moment, we stand in grave risk of doing more harm than good.
Imitate Mary: Pray
The life of a Christian is paradoxical: On the one hand, the Christian sees much more clearly than anyone the depravity and reality of evil. On the other, he is also convinced of the essential nothingness and impotence of evil. A Christian who has put on the armor of God – that is, who is imbued with the spirit of prayer – can come face to face with the devil, and laugh – not just a laugh of defiance, but also one of pity, as of one who is dealing with a spoiled child who fancies himself a tyrant.
I have heard it said of the Blessed Virgin that she never reacted…she responded. Mary, the greatest contemplative in history, next to Christ Himself, was never overwhelmed or distressed by the noise of unfolding events. She never felt the need to act for the sake of acting. She had carved out a space of spiritual silence in the midst of the noise of the world, wherein she patiently awaited God’s voice. In this way, Mary transcended history, seeing events – however troubling – from the vantage of the eternal, folded within the truth of Christ’s cosmic victory, and with an eye only to what God willed for her to do. The same can be said of any true contemplative.
We, however, are often in a state of constant reaction. Consumed by worry, we see only what is right in front of our eyes, and spend our days fighting brushfire after brushfire. We rarely stop to ask God what He wishes us to do, and even more rarely pause to listen for His response. In reacting in this way, we convince ourselves we are helping. Often, however, we are only adding to the noise and the chaos.
In a series of three remarkable books, Cardinal Robert Sarah has repeatedly called Christians back to the essential duty of prayer and warned us against the allure of a spiritually rootless activism. He opens the last of these books – The Day is Now Far Spent – warning us against the sin of Judas, who desperately wanted to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God, in this world. And the consequence was that he “distanced himself. He no longer listened to Christ. He no longer accompanied him during those long nights of silence and prayer. Judas took refuge in worldly affairs. He busied himself with the purse, money, and commerce.”
Like Judas, concludes the cardinal, “we have betrayed! We have abandoned prayer. The evil of efficient activism has infiltrated everywhere. We seek to imitate the organization of big businesses. We forget that prayer alone is the blood that can course through the heart of the Church. We say that we have no time to waste. We want to use this time for useful social works.”
However, “Someone who no longer prays has already betrayed. Already he is willing to make all sorts of compromises with the world. He is walking on the path of Judas.”
Stark words. Sobering words.
The Virgin Mary is the perfect counter-example. More recently, however, we have the great example of Mother Teresa. Though utterly dedicated to her mission to alleviate the suffering of the poorest of the poor in the slums of India, Mother Teresa and her fellow sisters always spent many hours a day in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. What excuse do we have, who waste so many hours on social media, or reading the news, or watching Netflix. And what is the result of all of this, except that we only become more agitated, and more of a spiritual stumbling block to our brothers and sisters!
Do you find that you are consumed by fear these days? If so, then I must ask you: are you praying?
If the answer is “no”, then you know what you must do.
Click here to begin by praying a pro-life rosary.