The first degree of humility, then, is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes and beware of ever forgetting it. Let him be ever mindful of all that God has commanded; let his thoughts constantly recur to the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God, and to the life everlasting which is prepared for those who fear Him. Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices, whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or the self-will, and check also the desires of the flesh.
Today’s reading tells us of the first rung of the ladder of humility – the fear of God. We know that Deus caritas est – “God is Love” (perhaps even abusing the meaning of that statement), but what does it mean to fear Him? After all, doesn’t St. John tell us as well that “Fear is not in charity: but perfect charity casteth out fear, because fear hath pain.” Why then does St. Benedict tell us to keep the fear of the Lord before our eyes? Is it a product of his medieval mind? A superstition that creeped into his beliefs? Quite the contrary! Our holy father is steeped in the Fathers and the Scriptures. All throughout the wisdom literature of the Old Testament we find references to the fear of the Lord – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom […] (Pr 9:10).
There are, I would say, two kinds of fear: one positive, one negative; one active, the other passive. The negative kind of fear is one that debilitates, that paralyzes, that makes one incabable of acting; it is the fear of a slave, a fear of punishment. The positive makes one want to strive, to grow; it is the fear of the child who loves his parents so much that he is afraid of displeasing them – this latter is the timor Domini we should strive for. It is true, however, that people have different levels of spiritual maturity and that many times the starting point is the negative kind of fear. This is not bad insofar as one does not stay stuck in it, does not move beyond it to a more perfect love. I speak for myself when I say that at different periods in my life I have gone between one and the other (sometimes within the same day!), that it has not been a sort of linear progression.
St. Benedict tells us to ponder our sins regularly. I believe this is a form of keeping before one’s eyes one’s own worthlessness. This is not a very popular attitude in our current culture, in which we’re told to only focus on the positive, that we need to “embrace who we are”, to “follow our hearts” – the “I’m-OK-you’re-OK” culture. If I am “OK”, if there is nothing wrong with me, what need do I have of being saved? After all, what do I need to be saved from? The character that Scrpitures contrast the God-fearer to is the fool: A fool receiveth not the words of prudence: unless thou say those things which are in his heart. (Pr. 18:2)
Lately, for whatever reasons I do not know, it has been hard to keep this state of mind at work. This disipation has lead to me catch myself over and over again unconsciously falling into sins of the mind and of the tongue. As Lent approaches, perhaps this is something to keep in mind.