Saturday, July 25, 2015

Fear, Humility, Lack, and Sorrow

The only daily devotional reading I've ever managed to keep regularly had been somehow related to the Desert Fathers. For about the last year, I've been using By Way of the Desert, a book of readings from the Abbas, paired (sometimes, I daresay, capriciously) with a verse or three of scripture. It's a good way for me to touch base with my desert heroes, some days revisiting old familiar sayings, other days finding things I'd either forgotten or overlooked before. Today's was the latter:

Euprepius blessed us with this benediction: May fear, humility, lack of food and Godly sorrow be with you.

What kind of blessing is this? Who thinks this is any kind of "good word" (benediction)?

Among ascetics, who practice fasting and hold humility as the highest virtue, it makes a bit more sense, but I'm not really interested in unpacking all that tonight. Not directly.

 The word that leaps out at me is "fear." I'm not even going to try to guess what Eupreprius was talking about some 1,500 years ago (give or take a few decades). I can tell you what I have experienced just this week alone.

I have heard two different women, African American, one I know, one I was with in a writers' workshop this afternoon and only just met, both expressing fear at driving their car, a heightened vigilance at their speed, at their use of turn signals, at  having all proper insurance paperwork and whatnot up-to-date and with them. The driving references are directly related, of course, to the recent (unlawful) arrest and in-custody death of Sandra Bland. If that had been the only incident in recent memory, they might not have felt quite this fearful, but the last year has seen so many high profile incidents of violent death on Black bodies by police officers, well, who can blame them? I'm a little afraid for my black friends and acquaintances, too. Add in the string of burned black churches, the shooting at a black church, and all the resistance to relegating the Confederacy to the history books---if we are to receive fear as a blessing, some cups are running over.

The Abbas probably received this word as a reference to "fear of the Lord" (a tightly packed phrase itself) or maybe even of sin and hell. They likely also received the blessing of humility, want, and sorrow as a way of practicing their faith that kept them mindful of other people's lack and loss and also of their fundamental reliance on God.

What I'm fairly certain of is that fear can only be a blessing if we choose to respect the things beyond our understanding, not if it is sourced in terrorist tactics. Humility is a virtue only if practiced by choice, that to be humbled by oppression is not humility at all. Fasting may bring blessings, starvation only desperation. Godly sorrow, if it does not bring us to empathy and action for others who weep, is not Godly at all and more likely than not results only in crushing a person's spirit.

There are any number of disciplines we might take on to help us in our faith, in deepening our relationship and reliance on God. Demanding any of these disciplines on someone lacking in freedom to do otherwise wrecks relationships of all kinds.

In light of these friends' and acquaintances' expressions of fear for their own safety in this current environment of racial terrorism, I cannot hear Eupreprius' benediction without feeling the need to amend with these words:

 . . . and woe to you if you visit any of these on another human being.

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