Keeping the fear of God before his eyes (VII:2)

CHAPTER VII. Of Humility
26 Jan. 27 May. 26 Sept.
The first degree of humility, then, is that a man, always keeping the fear of God before his eyes, avoid all forgetfulness; and that he be ever mindful of all that God hath commanded, bethinking himself that those who despise God will be consumed in hell for their sins, and that life everlasting is prepared for them that fear Him. And keeping himself at all times from sin and vice, whether of the thoughts, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or his own will, let him thus hasten to cut off the desires of the flesh.

What does it mean to keep the fear of God always before one’s eyes? Saint Benedict speaks here of the fear of God in general, but Saint Thomas says that there are three kinds of fear of God: servile, initial, and filial. A man has servile fear when he fears sin and the punishment of sin and is, because of this fear, driven to turn to God and adhere to Him. We pray to have this kind of fear when we say with the psalmist: Confige timore tuo carnes meas; a judiciis enim tuis timui. “Pierce thou my flesh with thy fear: for I am afraid of thy judgments” (Psalm 118:120). A man has initial fear when he fears sin and the punishment of sin, and also fears offending God, Whom he loves. Finally, a man has filial fear when he fears separation from God and cleaves to God Whom he loves. This the psalmist expresses when he says, Adhæsit anima mea post te; me suscepit dextera tua. “My soul hath stuck close to thee: thy right hand hath received me” (Psalm 62:9).

Saint Benedict does not exclude servile and initial fear from the first degree of humility, but he will tell us that they are excluded from the twelfth degree of humility. It is important to see the trajectory by which a monk makes his way from the first to the twelfth degree of humility.

Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God which, being perfect, casteth out fear: whereby he shall begin to keep, without labour, and as it were naturally and by custom, all those precepts which he had hitherto observed through fear: no longer through dread of hell, but for the love of Christ, and of a good habit and a delight in virtue which God will vouchsafe to manifest by the Holy Spirit in his labourer, now cleansed from vice and sin.

Saint Thomas sometimes associates chaste fear to filial fear, the first being produced by the love that a spouse has for her husband, and the second by the love of a son for his father. Saint Thomas has this beautiful treatment of chaste and filial fear:

The relation of a son to his father or of a wife to her husband is based on the son’s affection towards his father to whom he submits himself, or on the wife’s affection towards her husband to whom she binds herself in the union of love. Hence filial and chaste fear amount to the same, because by the love of charity God becomes our Father, according to Romans 8:15, “You have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba [Father]”; and by this same charity He is called our spouse, according to 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ”: whereas servile fear has no connection with these, since it does not include charity in its definition. (II:II, q. 19)

Saint Thomas further says that while servile fear decreases in proportion to growth in charity, “filial fear must needs increase when charity increases, even as an effect increases with the increase of its cause. For the more one loves a man, the more one fears to offend him and to be separated from him” (II:II, q. 19).

What I find most helpful about Saint Thomas’s treatment of the gift of fear is that he associates the gift of fear with submission to God and with adhering to God. Filial and chaste fear spring from charity and are perfected in charity. At the twelfth degree of humility, servile fear will be driven out by charity, but filial and spousal fear will remain. Saint Thomas says:

Filial fear does not imply separation from God, but submission to Him, and shuns separation from that submission. Yet, in a way, it implies separation, in the point of not presuming to equal oneself to Him, and of submitting to Him, which separation is to be observed even in charity, in so far as a man loves God more than himself and more than aught else. Hence the increase of the love of charity implies not a decrease but an increase in the reverence of fear. (II:II, q. 19).

Mother Mectilde summed up her life by saying in her last hour, J’adore et me soumets, “I adore and I submit.” Her adoration and her submission grow out of the gift of fear, which is rooted in charity and is also the fruit of charity, that is of her filial and spousal love of God. In the end, the fear of God becomes an inward disposition to perpetual adoration. The monk who fears God always will make perpetual adoration the chief expression of his love of God. By this I do not mean constant attendance on the Most Blessed Sacrament, but rather an interior disposition of the heart by which one attends to God always. Mother Mectilde says in her Epiphany Conference of 1694:

To adore continually it is not necessary to say, “My God, I adore Thee.” It is enough to tend inwardly to God [who is] present, to maintain a profound respect out of reverence for His greatness, believing that He is in us as He truly is. In fact, the Most Holy Trinity dwells in us: the Father acts and operates there with His power, the Son with His wisdom, and the Holy Ghost with His goodness. It is, therefore, in the intimacy of your soul, where the God of majesty abides, that you must adore Him continually.

Here, Mother Mectilde’s teaching is very close to that of Saint Catherine of Siena, who, in her Dialogues, hears the Eternal Father say:

Sometimes she [the soul] seeks Me in prayer, wishing to know My power, and I satisfy her by causing her to taste and see My virtue. Sometimes she seeks Me in the wisdom of My Son, and I satisfy her by placing His wisdom before the eye of her intellect, sometimes in the clemency of the Holy Spirit and then My Goodness causes her to taste the fire of Divine charity, and to conceive the true and royal virtues, which are founded on the pure love of her neighbor. (Dialogues 39).

Mother Mectilde proposes a practice by which one can attend to the indwelling God:

From time to time, place your hand over your heart, saying to yourself: “God is in me. And He is there not only to sustain my physical life, as in irrational creatures, but He is there acting and operating, to raise me to the highest perfection, if I do not put obstacles in the way of His grace.”

She relates certain interior words and invites us to imagine them as being addressed to us individually:

Imagine that He says to you interiorly: I am always in thee: abide thou in me, think of Me and I shall think of thee, and I will take care of all the rest. Be wholly at my disposal, even as I am at thine; live not apart from Me. As Scripture says, “He who eats of Me will live by Me; he will abide in Me, and I in him” (cf. John 6:58 and 6:57). Happy are those who understand these words and who adore in spirit and in truth the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost!

Mother Mectilde explains the meaning and the greatness of a vocation to perpetual adoration:

. . . God has bestowed this grace upon you, preferring you to so many other holy souls who are more worthy than you and who would carry out this duty better if Our Lord would show them the mercy that He has granted you, and if they were to hear His voice say to them: “Come ye to adore me. Come ye to be my perpetual adorers.” How they would run [to Him]! And you also, if you were to hear these words, would you not all be transported out of yourselves for sheer joy? And even so, He has spoken these words to you in the depths of your heart, by means of the appeal of His grace, more really than if you had heard them by means of a voice’s distinct sound, which could be subject to illusion and to deception. Instead, the movement of His grace and the inspiration of His Spirit within you, by which you have been called to the vocation in which you find yourselves, should give you the assurance that He has spoken these words, and that day after day He repeats them, saying to you at every moment, “Adore Me in spirit and in truth.”

. . . Oh, let us begin seriously to adore Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth, to be true perpetual adorers. Let us adore Him in all places and in all that we do. There is not a single action that can dispense us from this. You will say to me, “What, then, even while eating?” Yes, because you do not eat as animals do, only to satisfy yourselves but, rather, by way of homage and submission to the will of God, to renew your necessary strength and to sacrifice yourselves anew to His majesty. Doing this with these intentions, sanctify this action and others like it that, of themselves, are merely natural. In this way, you will maintain in these [actions] that spirit of adoration that, if you are faithful, will lead you on to the highest holiness, moving you to the perpetual sacrifice of yourselves. This will cause you to die to your passions, to your disordered inclinations and to all that is opposed to your sanctification, making you, at the same time, true victims, ever immolated to His glory and to His honour.

The highest and most perfect expression of adoration is sacrifice. One called to a life of perpetual adoration is, by that very fact, called to immolation, that is to union with Christ, priest and victim.

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