Catholic Psychotherapy |
Spiritual Counsels |
Fear of Love |
Do Not Be Afraid |
Feeling Afraid vs. Being Afraid |
Self-sabotage and Fear of Dreams |
Accepting Love |
Fear of God |
Fear of Hell |
One small word, and yet so much
hangs on it.
Fear keeps alcoholics drinking,
addicts addicted, and wretched sinners stuck in
sin like quicksand. In fearing the darkness of the
human psyche you never get to feel the true joy of real light. Because, after
all, the light of truth illuminates the dark and
shows the darkness for what it is. So there you are, in full irony: in your
fear of the dark, you end up fearing love
Why should this be? Well, in
the early years of our lives, whether they are filled with abuse and trauma
or just ordinary childhood trials, we learn to defend ourselves from the
pain of life. Theres nothing wrong with defenses. In fact, they often
keep us alive. But if you cling to your childlike defenses and carry them
on into adulthoodas most everyone does
unconsciouslyyou can end up with a lifestyle
that causes you more problems than its worth. But the thought of changing
your life is terrifying, because its all you know. There are just too
many comfortable illusions to lose if you want
to see the truth and face the pain of life directly and honestly.
Before I started
studying psychology, I worked as a woodcarver and cabinetmaker. One day I
brought home a pile of dirty, moldy pieces of wood. My father looked at it
and said if it were up to him he would throw it all in the garbage. But I
patiently cleaned, sanded, filled, glued, refinished, assembled, and polished
the pieces. In the end I had a beautiful antique oak dining table.
So let that be a
psychologicaland theologicallesson. No life, however
dirty and broken, is beyond
redemption. Or beyond hope.
Now, my father
was a good man and he never abused me in any way. And he never told me that
I was garbage. But imagine how
it feels to be a child whose parents are abusive,
critical, neglectful, and manipulative. These parents not only break
down their child into a pile of sticks, but also, when the child stands there
covered in guilt and shame, they tell the child,
Look at you! Youre just a piece of garbage.
And why are there so many lives
headed for the garbage dump? Fear. Fear of
the hard work of the deep scrutiny necessary
to clean themselves off. Fear of letting go of the dirt, because dirt is
all they know, and, even if its dirt, at least its
Believe it or not, most of us
are brought up in modern culture to fear love. This is a radical statement,
so pause a bit and consider it.
How often did you, as a child,
yearn for gentle teaching and guidance, only to be told, “Shut up and just
do what I tell you to do” ? How often were you, as a child, criticized and
laughed at for expressing your honest feelings?
How often are you now used, in our culture of merchandising, as an object to
be manipulated in order to satisfy some other persons desire for profit
and power? How often do you shape yourselfwith
fad diets, workouts, cosmetic surgery, makeup, dyed hair, jewelry, tattoos,
a shaved head, or fashionable clothes—or lack of clothing—in order to meet the
expectations of someone’s desire?
So what does a person learn from
childhood experiences other than that this is a world of competition, strife,
and conflict, geared toward the survival of the fittestor
in todays world, the meanestin which honesty and
compassion are foolish
And how often, in the midst of
all this exploitation, has anyone ever done anything for your own growth
and welfare, without thought of what could be had in return?
To offer real
loveto will the good of another,
as Thomas Aquinas defined
to be satisfied with ones own weakness,
humility, and insignificance. Love is an act
of free will, not something that
you fall into. You can fall into desperate desire, and you can
fall into fatal attraction, but you cant fall into love. Love is a
sacrifice of sorts, and its a sacrifice of all that the culture deems
valuable. So to offer this real love, or true love, is to stand against
the culturenot as a revolutionary or terrorist but with a humble offering
of something better than what others see in their
True love, therefore, forsakes
the prestige offered by the culture in its
illusions. And, when we have been taught from
childhood to covet this prestige as our very identity, is it any wonder that
we fear love?
Every child will
suffer some form of emotional misunderstanding in his or her family. If this
misunderstanding is damaging enoughfor example, if the parents are
emotionally distant, hypocritical, or
abusivethe child can adopt two powerful defensive
deserve to be cared for.
wrong to want anyone to care for me.
With these beliefs
in place, the child effectively pushes love out of his or her life. Left
unhealed, these beliefs will remain in the unconscious like psychological
time capsules even into adulthood. Fear of love will persist, it will feel
impossible to ask for help from anyone, and God Himselfwho is
love and our only real helpwill be pushed away as well.
To overcome this fear of love,
then, is not a simple task. It requires far more than the conscious intellectual
assertion that you accept God. It requires far more than being a “good” person
out of a sense of duty. 
It requires something totally different from the illusion
of “being in control.” It requires that all those
unconscious defenses which push love out of
your life be shattered. Its a processa conversionthat will
turn your life upside down and inside out. And, if done properly, it will
leave you saying, just as Saint Paul said, The life I live now is not
my own (Galatians 2:20).
Do Not Be
Now, lets pause here and
wonder about something. What is the one thing that Christ repeats over and
over throughout the Gospels? Do not be afraid.
Christ doesnt say this
as if He were a humanistic psychologist telling us to stop whining and get
on with life. No. When He tells us not to be afraid, He speaks from
the place of His own real presence. That is, He so much as says,
When I am with you, I will protect you from your
The wolf, seeing
all this multitude, ran towards Saint Francis with his jaws wide
As he approached,
the saint, making the sign of the cross, cried out: Come hither, brother
I command thee, in the name of Christ, neither
to harm me nor anybody else.
tell, no sooner had Saint Francis made the sign of the cross, than the terrible
wolf, closing his jaws, stopped running, and coming up to Saint Francis,
lay down at his feet as meekly as a lamb.
Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
Imagine what Saint Francis must
have felt as the wolf charged at him! The saint had such a complete trust
in Christ, as evidenced by the Sign of the Cross he made, that his body did
not sweat even a single drop of fear. And the wolf, sensing this profound
peace and calm, in obedience to Christ Himself closed
his gaping jaws and lay down meekly at Francis feet.
There arent many persons
in the world today who trust in Christ so completely as Saint Francis did.
Even Francis own friars held back in fear at the mere thought of the
Many of us
think we trust in Christ. Nevertheless, behind
our pious thoughtsand for some persons, religious habitswe hide
a private treasury of fears and phobias and anxiety and addictions that block
us from living a genuinely holy life. Yet if we
really believed that Christ is really present, there
would be no grudges, no jealousies, no phobias and anxiety disorders, and
vs. Being Afraid
Now, please dont get me
We are all
creatures, and we will always feel afraid of something. Vulnerability is
a fact of human existence; every day brings new challenges that loom in front
of us, and, because we cannot foretell the future, its simply impossible
not to feel afraid of something.
Still, in spite of all the fear
we feel, we dont have to get caught in trying to protect ourselves
with our own hands and our own wits. We do not have to let fear possess us.
In other words, we dont have to be afraid.
When Christ said, Do not
be afraid He did not mean that we should never feel afraid.
He meant that fear should not become our being because our being should
be His being, and that, when we encounter frightening situations, we should
trust in Him and, rather than take matters into our own hands, we should
look only to His protection.
I was caught
by the cords of death;
the snares of Sheol had seized me;
I felt agony and dread.
Then I called on the name of the LORD,
O LORD, save my life!
Gracious is the LORD and just;
yes, our God is merciful.
The LORD protects the simple;
I was helpless, but God saved me.
Now, to trust in Christ so genuinely
is a task requiring years of spiritual growth. But at least if you understand
how profound the task really is, then perhaps you wont go around fooling
yourself into thinking that you have achieved such trust when you havent
even come close. And, when you finally decide to stop
fooling yourself, you will have learned the
first step to overcoming fear, for then you will have the real presence of
Christs truth illuminating your darkness.
and Fear of Dreams
In speaking about dreams here
I am not referring to the dreams that happen in
your sleep. I am speaking about your profound inner ambitions for your future.
For example, some children have simple dreams about a birthday present, a
social event at school, or a family vacation. Some children have profound
dreams about their professional careers, about Holy Matrimony and family,
or about acts of service to humanity.
And yet some individuals have
no dreams at all.
Or, to be more correct, it
seems as if some persons have no dreams when really they squash
their dreams as soon as one gets started.
Why? Well, children who suffer
emotional pain in childhood because they are mistreated by parents, family,
peers, teachers, or others learn from experience that if they express any of
their needs, they will be punished or rejected by others. Caught in this mess,
then, children will learn to fear rejection and criticism and will conclude
that denying their needs—holding them back, as it were—will prevent their
So, as soon as a dream materializes,
BANG! they shoot it down before it has a chance to get off the
These are the persons who say, “I
don’t know” when asked what they want. These are the persons who say, “I don’t
know” when asked what they feel. These are the persons who say, “Whenever I try
to do anything, it never works out. This is how it will always be. There’s no
point in trying.” These are the persons who will say, “It isn’t fair! God hates
But God doesn’t hate them; they hate
themselves—they condemn themselves, they punish themselves, they sabotage
themselves—in fear of having dreams.
I know I am afraid,
you say. So what do I do now?
Well, to begin, think of
hell, the tragic consequence of pushing love—and
God—out of your life. Then think of Purgatory and
consider that whatever impurity you voluntarily purge from yourself in this
life, through the process of ever-continuing and ever-deepening conversion,
will not have to be burned out of you in Purgatory. Then pause and realize
that everything you just thought about hell and Purgatory is absolutely
useless to helping you understand anything about love.
In real love for us, God knows
that the free will of a hardened sinner cannot be brought to sorrow and
contrition through force or threats of punishment. Such tactics only drive
a sinner deeper into sin.
So think of Heaven and contemplate
the fact that our true purpose in life to be filled with the utter fullness of
God’s love in Heaven. Think of love itself, and realize that the intellectual
sentimentality that passes for love in the hearts of most of us is not real love.
To understand real love, contemplate the Blood of Christ. This is pure love. This
is the Blood He shed on the Cross for our salvation and the same Holy Blood He
gives to each of us, individually and personally, through His real presence in
the Eucharist. This is the same Blood the Blessed Virgin
dedicated her life to protecting.
We can share in this love if only we
would accept it by surrendering to it with the same love
it offers us. Christ spoke about our need to “take up this Cup” and shed our blood
for Him, but does it mean that you literally have to become a martyr? Well, no.
Blood is life, and so, to shed your blood—or pour out your blood—is to pour out your
life. And what does it mean to pour out your life? It means to use all of your
talents not for your own profit but for God’s service.
As you can see from everything
said above, fear refers to a narcissistic
concern about possible damage to our pride and
safety. In contrast fear of God refers
to our humble awe and service before Gods great
glory and mercy. Thus, whereas psychological
fear pulls us away from God, fear of God leads us
directly into the embrace of divine love.
For some persons, the fear of God
is sporadic and momentary. It comes and goes with circumstances; it can be
plagued with doubts and tears. For others, such as the mystics, the fear of
God is constant and leads to a constant awareness of the presence of God. Let’s
just say that any fear of God is a good thing because it’s an opening to real
love. But without the fear of God there is nothing but hell.
There are two kinds of fear of
hell: genuine and false.
Genuine fear of
the fear of hell per se; the genuine fear of hell is the fear of losing
heaven. This is a grace given only to those who truly love God.
False fear of
the fear of hell per se either. A false fear of hell is the fear of
loving God. Why else would those who say they are afraid of going to hell
not do anything it takes to learn to love? They know that love is lacking
in their hearts, they know they are betraying God, they know they are in
danger of hell, and yet the thought of meeting Godthe price of
Therefore, threats of hell mean
nothing to those who do not love God.
And why is this? Well, such persons
have been so miserably treated in childhood, and feel so much anger and
resentment at how they were treated, that when they feel hurt and wounded
as adults they seek out the only comfort they know: sin. And in persisting
in sin, they reveal their real fear: the fear of love.
So, in the end, the fear of hell
wont save you from hell because its the fear of love that condemns
you to hell.
Years ago, I saw a Clint Eastwood
movie, Unforgiven. I still remember one scene very clearly. Standing
over the wicked sheriff, Clint Eastwoods character pauses, his gun
cocked, his finger on the trigger. He looks down at the sheriff. The sheriff
looks up at him and says, Ill see you in hell. And, as
Clint Eastwood pulls the trigger, he acknowledges that, yes, they will meet
Its a horrifying thought
to realize that these two men both know they are headed straight for hell
and yet choose to just let it happen.
Now, if they were asked why this
should be, they would say, Because we are bad men.
But thats just a psychological
If pressed further, they would
say, OK. Maybe were not really bad, but we do bad things, and
we just dont know any other way.
But this, too, is a defense,
an intellectual defense.
So, what is the truth, behind
all the defenses? Well, it could be expressed like this: I know I do
bad things, and I was never taught how to do anything
else, but I am afraid to surrender my
life to Christ and ask him to heal
And what is it they fear? What
is it everyone fears? Were all afraid that if we really change our
lives and witness the truth, our social status
will change. Were afraid that our husbands or wives will divorce us
and we will lose a nice, comfortable life. Were afraid that our co-workers
and friends will criticize and reject us. Were afraid that our careers
will be threatened. In short, were afraid of what we might lose
if we allow ourselves to love.
And, in being afraid of
what we might lose, we place ourselves at risk of losing everything
Every child has basic needs:
the needs for food, for shelter, for physical and emotional safety, for health
care, and for the space to develop his or her personal talents. If these
needs are not fulfilled, whether because of social deprivation or
dysfunction in the family, the lack of human
comfort will make it nearly impossible for the child to comprehend spiritual
How can I surrender my
life to Christ if I have never felt taken care of by anyone or anything all
my life? To surrender to God feels as insane as jumping out of an airplane
without a parachute!
Here, then, can be located the
fear of and resistance to spiritual development. Such a person needs to
experience some sort of human comfort before any spiritual progress
can be made.
Now, there are many different
ways in which it may be possible to find this human comfort. Education, work,
marriage, and religious life can all offer the satisfaction of personal
accomplishment in the context of human relationships. Yet one great danger
lurks within them all: self-indulgence.
Maybe you have tried one or several
of these ways, and maybe you have failed in them, and maybe you still find
yourself stuck in self-indulgence and fear.
Still, all is not
If you crave the guidance and
protection that can come only from a human relationship, and that was lost
in childhood, and that you have not been able to find anywhere yet,
then one hope remains. In Catholic
psychotherapy you can experience the protection of a psychological and
spiritual guide, a protection that, once experienced, will allow you to
comprehend the protection God offers you even now, but that you fear to
1. Thomas Aquinas,
Theologica I-II, 26, 4.
2. In its psychological sense, duty has
nothing to do with love. When you act out of duty you are trying either to
gain someone’s appreciation or to avoid losing someone’s appreciation. Love,
in contrast, has no ulterior goal; the purpose of love is love. Love is its
Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of one’s “duty” to love
and worship God, but when used in this unique theological sense the word duty
simply points us to a need to avoid being careless about, or ungrateful for,
the ineffable love which God bestows upon us.
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