The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
from The Office of Readings: Thursday Second Week of Lent
from A Treatise on the Psalms,St. Hilary, Bishop
We must begin by crying out for wisdom. . . . Then, we must understand the fear of the Lord.
"Fear" is not to be taken in the sense that common usage gives it. Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or are made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encounters a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.
But of the fear of the Lord this is what is written: Come, my children, listen to me, I shall teach you the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord has then to be learned because it can be taught. It does not lie in terror, but in something that can be taught. It does not arise from the fearfulness of our nature; it has to be acquired by obedience to the commandments, by holiness of life and by knowledge of truth.
For us the fear of God consists wholly in love, and perfect love of God brings our fear of him to its perfection.
The fear of the Lord is an acquired "skill," one necessary to wisdom, that does not spring from the primordial fear that accompanies us as guardian and protector (although often it gets out of hand and becomes tyrant). Couple that with the fact that this fear is learned and the fear takes on a new name: awe.
In today's world, many seem to have lost the sense of awe. Nothing seems to inspire people to the same heights that have been recorded in the past. We build taller buildings, we launch more ambitious projects, we see more majestic things, and there is a collective sigh and yawn. We are the children of the age of Ecclesiastes--we've seen it all and it is all futile and boring.
St. Hilary points out that to acquire fear of the Lord, at least three characteristics must be present in the life of a person: obedience, holiness, and truth. Awe cannot be present if any one of these is lacking. The order might be stated somewhat differently--a person must know the truth (of God and His commandments) and be humbly obedient to it as a prelude to holiness of life. Truth and knowledge are not the only requisites of a holy life, they are merely the start; but they are a powerful, meaningful start. These begin the "fear" of the Lord, which is perfected in the love that grows from them.
The dailiness of the day, the horrifying ennui of the movement from day to day, is broken by awe. A moment of sitting in the presence of God and recognizing Him who is and I who am not is sufficient for anyone to be revitalized, to regain a sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of God. Without this necessary action even "billions upon billion of stars," are mere glowing balls of gas in the night sky.
If you look at young children, they have not yet forgotten awe. You see it in their faces as they look at each new thing. You see it in their behavior as they begin to react to these. Gradually, we train children out of this awe--we introduce them to the "real world," and work very hard to remove the stars from their eyes--not usually deliberately, but nonetheless effectively. I remember not so long ago when Sam would ask us what it was like before he was born. "What was it like when I wasn't born, when I was up in heaven with the angels and God?" He would ask this as though he had some memory of being in Heaven--it was magnificent, a breath of awe. Those questions come less frequently now, though we have done nothing consciously to remove them; nevertheless, our lack of response, of even being able to understand the question causes these questions to vanish, this memory of his to fade.
World-weariness, weltschmerz, is the dangerous offspring of a life not lived in holiness, obedience, and truth. One does not see this in the lives of the Saints. Rather one remarks in their every movement and every word a sense of profound joy, of profound peace. This is the proper offspring of love of God inspired by fear of the Lord. And this love of God brings the fear of the Lord to perfection.
teach me to fear you
as the prelude to proper love.
Set my feet in the paths of
truth, obedience, and holiness
that I may spread the light of your peace and joy
and be your humble servant here on Earth.