“Feel the fear — and do it anyway!” For some reason this book title (of an ‘airport paperback’) came into my mind during the week. I remember seeing it somewhere, years ago, when travelling and found it very amusing. Indeed I used to quote the title, in an American accent, when we were struggling with problems at work — because it seemed such a cliché, because it seemed so glib, and because we could all shout it out at a meeting whenever we faced a challenge and have a good laugh.
So what does scare you, then?
Ghosts? Snakes? Aeroplanes?
I am sure we all have a secret fear which crops up in dreams or lurks in the back of our minds as ‘the worst that can happen’. Some of these things we fear could well be very serious of course. For example, I recently read an article in the newspaper about a man who does some bizarre sport (if you can call it that) which entails diving to very great depths in the sea (or wherever) and coming back up using only his normal breath. It is very dangerous as should you get into any trouble at that depth, and your breath runs out, well…
He spoke of the same process as the airport book for dealing with fear. That is, he said, remember that all fear is about something in the future. Something that may not happen. Or if it does happen then the best preparation is, well, preparation — not fear, which is basically no help at all in that actual situation (rather the opposite) and in the current one is irrelevant as the situation has not yet happened (and, of course, may never).
And that set me thinking about prayer. And here I mean prayer in the widest sense, the sense that S. Thomas Aquinas talks about where if one consciously turns the mind to God, places oneself in His presence, acknowledges Him in this very moment, then one is praying. We don’t have to recite words, or ‘prayers’. We don’t have to kneel down, sit down, go to church, hold a rosary, look at an icon – though obviously we certainly can and sometimes do any or all of those things.
If we are consciously in God’s presence then we are praying — and so it is surely then impossible, in His arms, to be afraid. Ok you say now. Aren’t you just playing with words and being a clever clogs? I mean if you are standing at the side of a lake and a crocodile comes towards you, isn’t it right to be frightened? It is indeed. But fear will not get you very far (unless you count the crocodile’s stomach) unless you respond to the instinctive emotion of fear and (in this case) — run! Your fear is very useful as a spur to action to protect yourself or move out of immediate danger. That fear-response in the moment of danger is what fear is for. But it is not meant to be a ‘state’. Fear is a defence mechanism not a state-of-mind to be indulged in for any length of time so to speak. It is designed to do a job – e.g. get you to run. Not to sit around in, not to live in, so you become anxious and depressed, every day and all day.
By the way, I can’t now resist telling you this joke about prayer in a dangerous situation. A missionary was walking in Africa when he heard the ominous padding of a lion behind him. There was nowhere to run so the man fell to his knees.“Oh Lord,” prayed the missionary, “Grant in Thy goodness that the lion walking behind me is a good Christian lion.” Surprisingly the lion also crouched down and bowed his head. The missionary was much relieved — and then he heard the lion’s prayer:
“Lord, for what I am about to receive, please make me truly thankful.”
Coming back to fear and prayer in our everyday lives, I wonder how much we believe that prayer truly can be fear’s antidote or neutraliser. At the moment we are all thinking about vaccines, and antibodies or antidotes, so it seems an appropriate metaphor for the spiritual action of prayer on fear. Rather like a vaccine we can inoculate ourselves against fear – and a good deal more — with prayer. Sadly, a bit like the flu jab, we need to repeat it rather frequently (hopefully more than once a year!). This is not God’s ‘fault’ of course. More our half-heartedness. But if we do apply the antidote of prayer to fear — that is if we truly position ourselves in God’s presence — then fear will not take hold of us because we are conscious that God holds us.
Fear will not dominate our life because we fill it with a sense of being in God’s care always. And I don’t mean going around muttering prayers or even holy sayings. I don’t mean always talking about God and Jesus at every opportunity as if God only exists in religious language. No, I mean consciously grounding ourselves in God. Acknowledging the fear, or the pain, or the loneliness, or the rejection, or the deterioration of our body, or whatever troubles us just now, and turning our mind instead to God in thankfulness and hope.
‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!’
The Cathedral’s Patron and protector Saint Paul the Apostle wrote those words, probably in prison in Rome about 62AD. As he says in the nearby verses, ‘I have known plenty and hunger, faced many different situations good and bad – and now, in chains and in prison, the likelihood of certain death’. But Paul faced the fear. He put his trust in God and ‘did it anyway’ — that is he carried on with his ministry, fulfilling his vocation as an evangelist, healer, encourager and inspirer of those early Christian communities.
DON’T LET’S BE FRIT! – as children used to say.
Let us live our lives so that we ‘pray without ceasing’ — not, remember, saying prayers, but being conscious, now, of God-in-us, God-with-us. And especially when we are harassed by events, pressures at work or home or difficulties within or without. Then most of all, let us turn aside, stop, and place ourselves consciously in ‘God’s very now’ where not a hair on our head will be harmed. It takes practice. You need to persevere. (At present, staying at home, I am really trying hard to practice such exercises, not just writing about them!). It is not easy. But if I succeed in ‘casting out fear’ even for just a single moment — then I am content. What about you?