From the Center for Action and Contemplation – a week of reflections on fear
Fear unites the disparate parts of our false selves very quickly. The ego moves forward by contraction, self-protection, and refusal, by saying no. Contraction gives us focus, purpose, direction, superiority, and a strange kind of security. It takes our aimless anxiety, covers it up, and tries to turn it into purposefulness and urgency, which results in a kind of drivenness. But this drive is not peaceful or happy. It is filled with fear and locates all its problems as “out there,” never “in here.”
The soul or the True Self does not proceed by contraction but by expansion. It moves forward by inclusion. It sees things deeply and broadly not by saying no but by saying yes, at least on some level, to whatever comes its way. Can you distinguish between those two very different movements within yourself?
Fear and contraction allow us to eliminate other people, write them off, exclude them, and somehow expel them, at least in our minds. This immediately gives us a sense of being in control and having a secure set of boundaries—even holy boundaries.
But people who are controlling are usually afraid of losing something. If we go deeper into ourselves, we will see that there is both a rebel and a dictator in all of us, two different ends of the same spectrum. It is almost always fear that justifies our knee-jerk rebellion or our need to dominate—a fear that is hardly ever recognized as such because we are acting out and trying to control the situation.
Author Gareth Higgins describes moving through the “no” of fear to the “yes” of love:
Look beneath your fear and you will discover what it is you really care about. What you wish to protect: people, places, things, hopes, dreams.
Aggression, shame, and disconnection—even as attempts at making a better life for me or a better world for all of us—don’t work. But as we expand our circle of caring to include all people, all places, all of creation, we discover that our fears are shared and that all our cares come from the same place. Come to understand your fear, and you may find that we’re all just trying to figure out how to love. 
Father Richard continues:
Unless there is someone to hold and accompany us on these inner journeys, much of humanity cannot go very deep inside. If only we knew Who we would meet there, and could say, with St. Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510), “My deepest me is God!”  Without such accompaniment, most of us will stay on the surface of our own lives, where small-spiritedness keeps us from being bothered by others. Yet with divine accompaniment, we will literally “find our souls” and the One who lovingly dwells there.
 Gareth Higgins, How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021), 34.
 Catherine of Genoa, Vita, chapter 15.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 2014), 66–69.
God the Mother Hen gathers all of her downy feathered, vulnerable little ones under God’s protective wings so that we know where we belong, because it is there that we find warmth and shelter. —Nadia Bolz-Weber
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus], “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’ . . . Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” —Luke 13:31–32, 34
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, author, and dear friend of Father Richard’s. She published this sermon during the first COVID shutdown in the United States. She describes how Christians might interpret the oft-given scriptural command to “Be not afraid.”
Never once have I stopped being afraid just because someone said that.
I AM afraid. . . .
So maybe our hope for becoming unafraid is found in . . . the part where Jesus calls Herod a fox and then refers to himself as a mother hen.
A mother hen.
Maybe that beautiful image of God could mean something important for us: and by us I mean we fragile, vulnerable human beings who face very real danger. I can’t bear to say that this scripture is a description of what behaviors and attitudes you could imitate if you want to be a good, not-afraid person. But neither can I tell you that the Mother Hen thing means that God will protect you from Herod or that God is going to keep bad things from happening to you.
Because honestly, nothing actually keeps danger from being dangerous.
A mother hen cannot actually keep a determined fox from killing her chicks. So where does that leave us? I mean, if danger is real, and a hen can’t actually keep their chicks out of danger, then what good is this image of God as Mother Hen if faith in her can’t make us safe?
Well, today I started to think that maybe it’s not safety that keeps us from being afraid.
Maybe it’s love.
Which means that a Mother Hen of a God doesn’t keep foxes from being dangerous . . . a Mother Hen of a God keeps foxes from being what determines how we experience the unbelievably beautiful gift of being alive.
God the Mother Hen gathers all of her downy feathered, vulnerable little ones under God’s protective wings so that we know where we belong, because it is there that we find warmth and shelter.
But Faith in God does not bring you safety.
The fox still exists.
Danger still exists.
And by that I mean, danger is not optional, but fear is.
Because maybe the opposite of fear isn’t bravery. Maybe the opposite of fear is love. So in the response to our own Herods, in response to the very real dangers of this world we have an invitation as people of faith: which is to respond by loving.
Jesus invites us to discover that our fear is woven into God’s own life, whose life is mysteriously woven into all the scary things that can and do happen to us as human beings together on this earth. —James Finley
Our age has been called the age of anxiety, and I think that’s probably a good description for this time. We no longer know where our foundations are. When we’re not sure what is certain, when the world and our worldview keep being redefined every few months, we’re going to be anxious.
We want to get rid of that anxiety as quickly as we can. I know I do. Yet, to be a good leader of anything today—a good pastor, manager, parent, or teacher—we have to be able to contain and hold patiently a certain degree of anxiety. Probably the higher the level of leadership someone has, the more anxiety they must be capable of holding. Leaders who cannot hold anxiety will never lead us anyplace new.
That’s probably why the Bible says “Do not be afraid” almost 150 times! If we cannot calmly hold a certain degree of anxiety, we will always look for somewhere to expel it. Expelling what we can’t embrace gives us an identity, but it’s a negative identity. It’s not life energy, it’s death energy. Formulating what we are against gives us a very quick and clear sense of ourselves. Thus, most people fall for it. People more easily define themselves by what they are against, by whom they hate, by who else is wrong, instead of by what they believe in and whom they love.
I hope you recognize from this common pattern how different the alternative is. We might catch anew the radical and scary nature of faith, because faith only builds on that totally positive place within, however small. It needs an interior “Yes” to begin, just as the “Yes” of Mary began the entire process of salvation. God needs just a mustard-seed-sized place that is in love—not fear—that is open to grace, that is thrilled, that has found something wonderful.
CAC teacher James Finley shares how Jesus is a model of how to say Yes in the midst of our deepest fear:
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweat blood because he was afraid [Luke 22:44]. It is possible that he was infinitely more afraid than we could ever be. But the difference is: Jesus was not afraid of being afraid, because he knew it was just fear. . . . We are afraid of fear because we believe that it has the power to name who we are, and it fills us with shame. . . .
Jesus invites us to discover that our fear is woven into God’s own life, whose life is mysteriously woven into all the scary things that can and do happen to us as human beings together on this earth. This is liberation from fear in the midst of a fearful situation.
 Adapted from James Finley, Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2002), CD.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2001, 2020), 32–33.
Explore Further. . .
- Listen to James Finley lead a visualization practice to help ground our fear in love on Turning to the Mystics.
I hear Don’t be afraid and hope that it is not a command not to fear but rather the nurturing voice of a God drawing near to our trembling. I hear those words and imagine God in all tenderness cradling her creation against her breast.
—Cole Arthur Riley
Cole Arthur Riley is a writer and creator of the online prayer space Black Liturgies. She views fear as a place to discover God’s compassion for us:
I’m told the most frequent command from God in the Bible is Do not fear. Some have interpreted this as an indictment on those who are afraid, as if to say fear signifies a less robust faith. This offends me. God is not criticizing us for being afraid in a world haunted by so many terrors and traumas. I hear Don’t be afraid and hope that it is not a command not to fear but rather the nurturing voice of a God drawing near to our trembling. I hear those words and imagine God in all tenderness cradling her creation against her breast.
Perhaps it is not the indictment of God we are sensing but our own souls turned against themselves. I wouldn’t dare criticize Christ in the garden—sweating, crying, pleading for God to let the cup pass from him [Luke 22:41–44]. This is a Christ who knew fear deeply. And if God himself has been afraid, I have to believe he is tender with our own fear.
Riley describes God leading us in our fear to the deep rest that the psalmist envisions:
Whenever my friend’s ma was fed up, she used to mumble, I might be limpin through the valley of the shadow of death . . . What I skipped over in the psalm she was referencing time and time again is the sacred praxis it begins with. The psalmist says, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters” [Psalm 23:2].
I find it beautiful that in the face of terror, God doesn’t bid us toward courage as we might perceive it. Instead, he draws us toward fear’s essential sister, rest—a sister who is not meant to replace fear but to exist together in tension and harmony with it. For fear’s origin is not evil, though evil certainly wields it against our souls daily.
My father . . . pulls my ear into him and mumbles, Let the fear in, just don’t let it run you. Just as it can be the threatening hand that holds you in bondage, it can also protect you when the journey toward liberation requires perceptive choice and a certain instinct in the face of the unknown. No one would deny it is a good thing that we are terrified to jump from building to building. Fear steadies our impulses and warns us of danger. You might consider it more akin to a watchman than an enemy. . . .
I believe fear has the holy potential to draw out awe in us. To lead us into deeper patterns of protection and trust. To mold us into people engaged in the unknown, capable of making mystery of it instead of terror.
Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us (New York: Convergent, 2022), 83–84, 86.
If a person feels that they do not belong in the way in which it is perfectly normal for other people to belong, then they develop a deep sense of insecurity. But the awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. —Howard Thurman
Can any of you, however much you worry, add a single cubit to your span of life? If a very small thing is beyond your powers, why worry about the rest? Think how the flowers grow; they never have to spin or weave; yet, I assure you, not even Solomon in all his royal robes was clothed like one of them. Now if that is how God clothes a flower which is growing wild today and is thrown into the furnace tomorrow, how much more will God look after you, who have so little faith! –Luke 12:25–28, New Jerusalem Bible
Mystic and theologian Howard Thurman (1899–1991) describes the fear experienced by those who, as he puts it, have “their backs against the wall”  through oppression and injustice:
The ever-present fear that besets the vast poor, the economically and socially insecure, is a fear of still a different breed. It is a climate closing in; it is like the fog in San Francisco or in London. It is nowhere in particular yet everywhere. It is a mood which one carries around with oneself, distilled from the acrid conflict with which one’s days are surrounded. It has its roots deep in the heart of the relations between the weak and the strong, between the controllers of environment and those who are controlled by it.
Thurman makes it clear that Jesus, as a member of the Jewish community under Roman occupation, would have intimately understood this kind of fear and addressed it:
In the great expression of affirmation and faith found in the Sermon on the Mount [see Matthew 6:25–34] there appears in clearest outline the basis of [Jesus’] positive answer to the awful fact of fear and its twin sons of thunder—anxiety and despair. . . .
The core of the analysis of Jesus is that humans are children of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature and guarantees all the intricacies of the life-process itself. Jesus suggests that it is quite unreasonable to assume that God, whose creative activity is expressed even in such details as the hairs of a person’s head, would exclude from God’s concern the life, the vital spirit, of the person themselves. This idea—that God is mindful of the individual—is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease. In this world the socially disadvantaged person is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: “Who am I? What am I?”
The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If a person feels that they do not belong in the way in which it is perfectly normal for other people to belong, then they develop a deep sense of insecurity. . . . [But] the awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.
 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 7.
Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing; we are already in it. This is probably the deepest meaning of “divine providence.” So do not be afraid.
a practice of contemplation carries us into the “Big River” of God’s love and enables us to release our fears.
Grace and mercy teach us that we are all much larger than the good or bad stories we tell about ourselves or one another. Our small, fear-based stories are usually less than half true, and therefore not really “true” at all. They’re usually based on hurts and unconscious agendas that persuade us to see and judge things in a very selective way. They’re not the whole You, not the Great You, and therefore not where Life can really happen. No wonder the Spirit is described as “flowing water” and as “a spring inside you” (John 4:10–14) or as a “river of life” (Revelation 22:1–2).
I believe that faith might be precisely that ability to trust the Big River of God’s providential love, which is to trust its visible embodiment (the Christ), the flow (the Holy Spirit), and the source itself (the Creator). This is a divine process that we don’t have to change, coerce, or improve. We just need to allow it and enjoy it. That takes immense confidence in God, especially when we’re hurting.
Often, we feel ourselves get panicky and quickly want to make things right. We lose our ability to be present and go up into our heads and start obsessing. At that point we’re not really feeling or experiencing things in our hearts and bodies. We’re oriented toward making things happen, trying to push or even create our own river. Yet the Big River is already flowing through us and each of us is only one small part of it.
Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing; we are already in it. This is probably the deepest meaning of “divine providence.” So do not be afraid. We have been proactively given the Spirit by a very proactive God.
Ask yourself regularly, “What am I afraid of? Does it matter? Will it matter in the great scheme of things? Is it worth holding on to?” We have to ask whether it is fear that keeps us from loving. Grace will lead us into such fears and emptiness, and grace alone can fill them, if we are willing to stay in the void. We mustn’t engineer an answer too quickly. We mustn’t get settled too fast. We all want to manufacture an answer to take away our anxiety and settle the dust. To stay in God’s hands, to trust, means that we usually have to let go of our attachments to feelings—which are going to pass away anyway. People of deep faith develop a high tolerance for ambiguity and come to recognize that it is only the small self that needs certitude or perfect order all the time. The Godself is perfectly at home in the River of Mystery.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003), 142–144.
Explore Further. . .
- Read theologian Diana Hayes on God’s mighty streams of faith, grace and justice.
- Learn more about this year’s theme Nothing Stands Alone.
- Truth be told / I must write about the plank in my eye / That causes me to see life in a small way. / Truth says, I miss the enormity of my sin. / I often think / My life / Is about me. / My sin / Is only things I’ve done. / The sage says / My life is not about me / That I own all the faults / Every eye splinter I have spotted in others / Because we are one. / Unified / Whole —from “Plank” by Tom S.