Jer 20:10 -13, Ps 68, Rom 5:12 -15, Mt 10: 26 -33
Let me begin with what might seem a digression.
In recent decades there has been a noticeable increase in interest in the so-called “desert fathers and mothers” – men and women from the 3rd and 4th centuries who were hermits, monks, and nuns, living a very strict life, mainly in the deserts of modern-day Egypt.
The relatively new-found popularity of these figures might seem surprising, given how ascetical they were, how strict and penitential their lives were. But what, I think, makes their writings, or the various records of their words and actions, so popular today is their combination of high moral and spiritual aspiration with humility, a lack of judgmentalism, and their profound insight into the human heart.
Among the desert fathers who has gained particular popularity in recent decades is one of the very last of them: Evagrius of Pontus. I will say something about him soon.
Now, when we speak today about the passions or being passionate, we tend to use these terms in a positive sense. A person might write to an agony aunt or an agony uncle to ask advice about how to get passion back into their marriage; or we might speak of a good teacher as someone who is passionate about education. And so on.
But for people like Evagrius, the passions had a less positive connotation: they were forces within that were liable to disturb whatever degree of equilibrium we might otherwise have. They could be understood along the lines of sources of addiction or reactivity, internal forces over which we have only limited control. They disrupt our happiness, and disrupt our relationships with ourselves, with others, and, of course, with God. The passions on this view can be understood roughly along the lines of ailments that need a physician.
Now you do not need to opt completely for the positive picture or the negative picture of the passions. Both contain truth. Anyway, they are getting at different things, and I think that they don’t always contradict each other despite surface appearance.
But, in any case, there are important insights related to the passions in what people like Evagrius are saying. He is concerned with getting us to reflect upon what might underlie those forces or passions within ourselves that can cause us so much grief.
And in this Evagrius came up with a list of eight thoughts or sources of desires/passions that can lead us astray. In time Evagrius’ list of eight thoughts would become, for better or worse, the basis of the so-called seven deadly sins. But, in any case, here’s Evagrius’ list: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia or sloth, vainglory, and pride.
In putting forward this list, Evagrius was presumably well aware that each of these also reflected what is positive: for example, gluttony reflects that we can and ought to enjoy a well-cooked meal. Nothing wrong with that at all.
But one of Evagrius’ many fine insights is of particular relevance to today’s Gospel reading. And that insight is a simple but profound one, which is: that so much of what can go wrong in our moral and spiritual lives can be very closely connected to fear. And, by the way, while Evagrius might have been one of the first, he was by no means one of the last within the tradition to bring up the subject of fear a very important issue in the moral and spiritual life.
So for Evagrius, even the likes of gluttony is connected with fear. Evagrius links it with an underlying fear of not having enough food; and pride as well – it too is closely connected with fear, even if at first glance it might seem at the opposite pole to fear. In the person dominated by unruly passions, fear is everywhere.
You see, the proud person needs to vaunt himself before others. But why does he need to do this? Well, in part because he’s afraid of being seen as just ordinary, as unexceptional, or simply being overlooked because people are interested in other things. Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism captures this wonderfully: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” And we’ve all heard the bit about bullies being full of fear deep down.
In today’s relatively short Gospel reading we have Jesus saying to us not to fear no fewer than three times. Mind you, he does tell us to fear something once. So it’s three against one when it comes to not fearing. But, that said, it is noticeable how often in the Gospels either Jesus or an angelic messenger tell people not to be afraid. It’s clearly something that Jesus and angels need to address with us on a regular basis.
So today’s Gospel reading begins with:
“So have no fear of men for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.”
It’s not absolutely clear what exactly Jesus means here; but at the very least Jesus seems to be saying to us that those who will go about proclaiming the Good News should have enough confidence in the truth and power of the Good News, so as not to be afraid in a deep way – because it’s the kind of truth that issues from what is revealed to us by the God whose power is greater than the universe itself and whose message ought to empower us and give us courage. As Jesus says elsewhere: “the truth will make you free’ – and part of a deep freedom, is being free of unnecessary and unhelpful fear.
And then, with an almost maternal tenderness, Jesus speaks about not having to fear because we are precious in the eyes of God – the God who knows us so intimately that He has counted all the hairs on our heads. The kind of message here seems to be along the lines of Julian of Norwich’s famous: “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Of course, Julian does not mean that everything will go fine. She lived in a time of brutal warfare and of great pestilence. If her message were one of blithe optimism in such circumstances, she’d be more a silly-billy than the great theologian and spiritual writer she certainly was.
What she is saying is that there can be ugly and difficult and troublesome things, but in the big scheme of things that is within Divine Providence, and known to God, there will be vindication and victory; and because of this ultimate victory we need not be afraid. My own addition to this is that for this level of confidence in divine vindication to really take root in our lives usually requires a life that takes prayer, or at least relationship with God seriously, and so has allowed our ways of seeing things to be shaped by this Christian vision.
But, then, we notice that Jesus does say to us that we should be afraid of those who would destroy body and soul. So there are things to be afraid of. There is appropriate fear.
The Prophet Jeremiah in the first reading had good reason to have fear, being surrounded by his enemies. And if a big bear were chasing after me, It’d be right for me to be afraid; but this would be justified and necessary fear, not the unhelpful kind of fear that Jesus and Evagrius warn us of, the kind of fear that is a state of being, the kind of fear that can spread right through our lives and can sap us of our happiness, can prevent from being who we are being to be, and can undermine our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God.
So if I were to suggest to you just two things to take from today’s Gospel reading it would be a simple insight and a simple exercise.
First the insight: as Jesus and Evagrius suggest: fear can become a state of being, spreading across our lives, a major factor that is unhelpful is so many ways, not least morally and spiritually and in our relationships.
And, second, the exercise: in the days and maybe weeks to come, I invite you to consider reflecting a bit on how an inappropriate fear might be playing a role in your life, and then I advise you to bring this to God in upfront and honest prayer.
In this, I counsel you to show gentleness and compassion and patience towards yourself – after all, there’s no crime in being more fearful than is good for us. The point of the exercise is simply to try to identify in ourselves what might be holding us back, not so that we might beat ourselves up in a harsh accusing way, but, rather, with God’s help, that we might move forward.
And, let’s face it, recent events have probably not helped our fear levels one bit. There is a great deal of anxiety in the air, perhaps with some good reason (indeed, many are having a very difficult time of it); and it’s downright difficult not to get caught up in this at least to some extent.
But, all the same, today’s Gospel reading is a wise and realistic one, a Gospel passage very relevant to our current time. With tenderness and gentleness, and concern for our well-being, Christ says to us, “Be not afraid”, let fear not become a state of being, let it not take over.
And he says this not only because of his tender love for us, but also because of his ultimate victory. As he puts it elsewhere: “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
So, brothers and sisters: Be not afraid. He has overcome the world. Amen.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.