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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Fear

 

Catholic Psychotherapy  |  Spiritual Counsels  |  Books  |  About CSF

 
Fear | 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 | Unforgiven | Summary

 
FEAR.

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 itself.

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. There’s nothing wrong with defenses. In fact, they often keep us alive. But if you cling to your childlike defenses and carry them on into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously—you can end up with a lifestyle that causes you more problems than it’s worth. But the thought of changing your life is terrifying, because it’s 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 psychological—and theological—lesson. 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! You’re 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 it’s dirt, at least it’s comfortable.

 
Fear of Love

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 person’s desire for profit and power? How often do you shape yourself—with 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 “fittest”—or in today’s world, the meanest—in which honesty and compassion are foolish weakness? 

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 love—“to will the good of another,” as Thomas Aquinas defined it [1]—is to be satisfied with one’s 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 can’t fall into love. Love is a sacrifice of sorts, and it’s a sacrifice of all that the culture deems valuable. So to offer this real love, or true love, is to stand against the culture—not as a revolutionary or terrorist but with a humble offering of something better than what others “see” in their blindness.

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 enough—for example, if the parents are emotionally distant, hypocritical, or abusive—the child can adopt two powerful defensive beliefs:

“I don’t deserve to be cared for.”

“It’s 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 Himself—who is love and our only real help—will 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. [2]   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. It’s a process—a conversion—that 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 Afraid

Now, let’s 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 doesn’t 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 fear.”

  

The wolf, seeing all this multitude, ran towards Saint Francis with his jaws wide open.

As he approached, the saint, making the sign of the cross, cried out: “Come hither, brother wolf; I command thee, in the name of Christ, neither to harm me nor anybody else.”

Marvellous to 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.

  

—from The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
Chapter XXI

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 aren’t 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 wolf.

Many of us think we trust in Christ. Nevertheless, behind our pious thoughts—and for some persons, religious habits—we 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 no addictions.

 
Feeling Afraid vs. Being Afraid

Now, please don’t get me wrong here.

We are all weak, broken 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, it’s simply impossible not to feel afraid of something.

Still, in spite of all the fear we feel, we don’t 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 don’t 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.

  

—Psalm 116:3–6

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 won’t go around fooling yourself into thinking that you have achieved such trust when you haven’t 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 Christ’s truth illuminating your darkness.

 
Self-sabotage 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 being rejected.

So, as soon as a dream materializes, BANG! they shoot it down before it has a chance to get off the ground.

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 me!”

But God doesn’t hate them; they hate themselves—they condemn themselves, they punish themselves, they sabotage themselves—in fear of having dreams.

 
Accepting Love

“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.

 
Fear of God

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 God’s 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.

 
Fear of Hell

There are two kinds of fear of hell: genuine and false.

Genuine fear of hell isn’t 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 hell isn’t 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 God—the price of change—seems impossible.

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 won’t save you from hell because it’s the fear of love that condemns you to hell.

 
“Unforgiven”

Years ago, I saw a Clint Eastwood movie, Unforgiven. I still remember one scene very clearly. Standing over the wicked sheriff, Clint Eastwood’s character pauses, his gun cocked, his finger on the trigger. He looks down at the sheriff. The sheriff looks up at him and says, “I’ll see you in hell.” And, as Clint Eastwood pulls the trigger, he acknowledges that, yes, they will meet in hell.

It’s 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 that’s just a psychological defense.

If pressed further, they would say, “OK. Maybe we’re not really bad, but we do bad things, and we just don’t 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 me.”

And what is it they fear? What is it everyone fears? We’re all afraid that if we really change our lives and witness the truth, our social status will change. We’re afraid that our husbands or wives will divorce us and we will lose a nice, comfortable life. We’re afraid that our co-workers and friends will criticize and reject us. We’re afraid that our careers will be threatened. In short, we’re 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 nevertheless.

 
Summary

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 comfort.

“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 lost.

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 accept.

 

Who wrote this web page?

 

Notes.

1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa 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 own reward.
    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.

 


 
Recommended Reading
 
A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites (including this webpage) is now available at your fingertips in book form.

 

Healing by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. explains how psychological defenses help to protect us from emotional injury. But if you cling to the defense mechanisms that were created in your childhood and carry them on into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously— your quest for spiritual healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts. Still, God has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its pull: hate So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice between your enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to come from you. You will go where you desire.

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