Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Once there was a popular television series about the adventures of an obsessive-compulsive detective named Adrian Monk who had 38 different phobias: like a fear of fear of dentists, a fear of airplanes; a fear of crowds and maybe even a fear of homilies!
Not all fears are bad. St. Benedict encourages us to have three healthy phobias. He writes: To fear the day of judgment (4:44); to be in dread of hell (4:45); and to keep the fear of God always before one’s eyes (7:1, Rule for Monasteries). And in today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Mt 10:27).
I have always feared hell, especially when it’s described as a “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:10). That’s a healthy phobia. In a similar way we try to teach teenagers to have a healthy fear of speeding by warning them of what can happen. Three teenagers were speeding on a country road in southern Wisconsin. Cresting a hill their car went airborne for 38 feet, bounced hard, careened off the road and crashed between two trees where it was crushed and caught fire. Three wonderful young men were killed because they didn’t have a healthy fear of speeding. Neither did I. At age 16 I owned my own car, a 1951 Plymouth. One day with five friends, we wanted to see if my car could go 100 miles per hour. I floored the gas pedal and off we went: 60, 70, 80, 90, and finally 100. At that point the car began to shake like an airplane in turbulent weather. Afraid, I backed off the gas pedal and we slowed to 55. To this day I regret that foolishness. We could have been killed in a crash. It’s good to have a healthy fear of reckless driving but even more of reckless living.
In St. Bernard’s sermon on “Conversion” he writes “I will warn you whom to fear. Do you want to know who that is? It is yourself, your own iniquity.”1 I do fear my own capacity for wickedness. It’s an act of love to remind ourselves and others about hell. Eternal fire is terrifying enough! But there’s something else that greatly increases my fear of hell. We know that all goodness comes from God (James 1:17). Without God we can do nothing good. The freedom we now enjoy to choose good and avoid evil is from God. But those in hell are separated from God. They no longer have the freedom to choose goodness. They can never again make an act of love, or be kind to someone, or say, “I’m sorry.” They hate God, they hate everyone else, and they hate themselves. I really fear hell.
It’s hard to teach teenagers a healthy fear of reckless driving with its terrible consequences. It’s also hard to teach a healthy fear of reckless living with its eternal consequences. But Jesus tries to do it in the Gospels over and over again. Six times in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus describes hell as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, six times!2 St. Teresa of Avila writes, “I marvel how after having read books in which the pains of hell were somewhat explained I didn’t fear them or take them for what they were. Where was I?“3
But let’s not lose heart at the thought of hell. St. Benedict also tells us “to desire eternal life with all the passion of our spirit” (4:46). When I’m afraid that I might never get there, the words of the Lord in the prophet Isaiah give me consolation and courage: “Thus says the Lord who created you: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. … You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Is 43:1-4).
Adrian Monk had a lot of phobias. I don’t know if he feared hell, but like him I also have a fear of spiders and snakes and lightning; and especially a fear of long homilies!
- Cistercian Fathers Series, Cistercian Publications, vol 25, p. 227.
- Mt 8:12; 13:41f; 13:49f; 22:13; 24:50f; 25:30
- K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez, Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1, Autobiography, chapter 32:5.