Psalm 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; prudent are all who practice it.
His praise endures forever.
The months of April and May mean one thing for Catholic Churches in the United States: It’s Confirmation Season! The crack of a bat on a baseball field might signal the beginning of spring, but the smell of sacred chrism being applied to the foreheads of Confirmandi is the penultimate moment before parishes ease into the calmer schedule of summer. Confirmation can be a hectic time of coordinating spring sports schedules, finishing service projects, and making sure the Confirmandi show up on time for the big day! Amid all this Confirmation planning, we revisit a passage from Isaiah that reminds us of the gifts given at this celebration: the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
…a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted. (Isaiah 11:1-4)
As beautiful as this passage is, I always struggled with the idea of the fear of the Lord as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Growing up in a family that strongly affirmed a loving God that is merciful and forgiving, the idea of fearing God seemed a bit out of place. However, as the Psalm at the beginning of this reflection states, not only is the fear of the Lord a gift of the Holy Spirit, it is the beginning of wisdom and holiness. The beginning of holiness means to be afraid? I was in need of some clarification.
The search for clarification began a journey that has borne much fruit. The first stage of this journey came in seminary when I encountered the idea of fear of the Lord being connected with liturgical reverence, expressed in awe and wonder. At first, I was greatly comforted by the image that God was not something I needed to be afraid of, but rather someone I reverence and honor. Over time, however, this understanding of fear of the Lord began to leave me dry. Perhaps it was because I sang in the seminary choir and spent many a liturgy with a folder in my face, but my participation in Mass seldom put me in a position where I could step back and be taken in by awe, wonder, and reverence. In fact, the only time I felt I could appreciate quality liturgy was after Mass was done. Therefore, my search continued.
The next phase of this exploration came as a priest/teacher at Regis Middle and High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In the fruitful struggle of teaching abstract, theological concepts to students who had yet to develop the ability for abstract thinking, I found a concrete way of teaching the fear of the Lord through the 10 Commandments. With my freshman, I would argue that the 10 Commandments should not be seen as weighty rules that oppress our fun. Rather, the Commandments are boundaries we place on our relationship with God, similar to how we protect meaningful friendships out of fear of hurting a person we love. Therefore, the fear of the Lord was cast not as something that made us shrink in terror, but became a positive process of protecting the most essential relationship of our lives: our relationship with God. I further applied this “spiritual personalism” (for lack of a better term) when trying to help my students understand Hell. I would explain that Hell was not a place of molten lava, pitchforks, and heavy metal music, but rather a state of being, best understood as a radical, eternal loneliness and separation from anything that is true, good, and beautiful. Though it was impactful to recast the fear of the Lord as something that motivates one to protect something versus dreading something, this relational understanding still didn’t address the aspect of awe and wonder we are to have toward God for simply being God. Therefore, my search continued.
Recently, my pondering of fear of the Lord has been aided by Astronomy. When I gaze upon objects like the Orion Nebula, contemplating how it is a place of star birth, made possible through star death, and reflect on the beauty of its rich color, the experience evokes the sense of reverential awe and wonder I was taught to embrace in Sacramental Theology. I find it ironic that there is a literal distance necessary to experience this awe and wonder, along with patience and time to gather the necessary photons through a camera to display the true wonder of these objects (along with a little artificial enhancement from iPhoto). Just as the spiritual personalism of the 10 Commandments helped me experience God’s imminence by protecting a crucial relationship, so, too, does viewing God’s creation through a telescope give me a sense of God’s transcendence, assisting me to fix my spiritual gaze on the love of the Trinity, moving me to awe and wonder while contemplating God’s beauty and majesty.
Another metaphor of reverencing the transcendence of God can be made by observing the sun. As a child, I would often wonder, “What would a star look like up close?” When I got older, I learned how to safely use a solar filter to gaze at our nearest star, the sun (I emphasize the proper use of solar filters… do not look at the sun without one of these filters and the help of someone who can teach you how to us it properly!) Every time I gaze into the sun, I experience great awe and wonder. However, common sense tells us we need a safe, “reverential” distance to have this experience. This reverential distance reminds me of the radical transcendence in which God is profoundly other, our source, our beginning, and our end – concepts too big to fully grasp with the limits of human reason. Yet, this transcendence can impact us on a personal level through gazing at solar events, like a prominence exploding off the sun. Transcendence and imminence, two dynamics of the universe that remind us of two ways God is present to us. These connections, however, need to avoid a crude pantheism, turning the metaphor into a “nature god.” Instead, we should gaze in wonder at natural transcendence and imminence, realizing these same categories pertaining to God go far beyond anything we can comprehend in the natural world.
Below is a short video captured from NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) of a prominence exploding off the left side of the sun. When I shared it on social media, my brother posted a comment that summarized my exact feelings, paralleling the fear of the LORD:
Captivating and Scary!
Exploring the fear of the Lord through imminence and transcendence has reawakened my sense of awe and wonder during Mass and in my daily life. Further, it has helped me appreciate God’s fingerprints present in the beauty of creation and calls me to constantly work toward upholding the human dignity of my neighbor. In short, I finally feel that I am approaching a healthy understand of the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom… but it’s not done yet!
Question for Discussion: How do you understand the gift of the Holy Spirit we call “the fear of the Lord?” Do you feel a sense of awe and wonder in the presence of God? Do you feel a sense of awe and wonder when you gaze into the Heavens? Post your thoughts and, together, let us find a language to express the beginning of wisdom that helps deepen our love of God.