Gospel: Lk 15 1-32. While he was still a long way off his father saw him and had pity
Temporarily stranded in London on my way back to Bonnevaux, I went into a supermarket to get some food. I wore the breastplate of my mask and wielded the sword of social distance like the other foot soldiers passing through the desert of Covid. As I entered, a woman with three children in tow and pushing a loaded trolley walked past me with an air of defiance with no mask and, well, what’s social distance with three young children in a pandemic?
She caught my eye not because she was flouting the rules but because I felt that the defiance was the sign, not the cause of her disobedience. In her eyes and manner, I sensed fear, a fear deeper than that of the transmission of a virus. Perhaps she was, as so many in the lower income groups, gripped by fear of not being able to cope and of  failing in the most precious of her responsibilities. Defiance may be a way of preventing fear from becoming panic.
The desert mothers and fathers understood that they went into the desert voluntarily – or ‘were led’ into it like Jesus – knowing full well that they were going to meet wild beasts. These strong forces would circle and attack, retreat and attack again. Stronger forces would arrive to help them deal with the struggle with themselves; but they warned newcomers not to expect a quick or easy victory. The peace they sought could indeed be tasted. It was a strong force itself and not a mirage. But to remain in it permanently is not easy.
Fear is natural, an awareness of anything that might harm us or those we care for. Anxiety is a continuous dull fear that seeks specific reasons for existing. Whether specific or vague, fear is a wild beast that destroys peace and arrests our capacity to give or receive love. Naming it is necessary. Yet it’s difficult to get the human race or any individual member of it to be free from paranoia, for example, just by naming it. No wonder the injunction to ‘fear not’ is a mantra repeated 365 times in the Bible. There’s no day we don’t feel some fear.
What is the cure? Should I have said to the maskless woman ‘God loves you’? Maybe. But the traditional remedy is the fear of God. There is an all-important difference between daily involuntary fear and the fear of God. We have to learn how to fear God. ‘Come my children, listen to me and I shall teach you the fear of the Lord’. As the great St Hilary of Poitiers said, it is learned by obedience, holiness and knowledge of the truth. And therefore, the fear of God consists wholly in love and only perfect love definitively casts out fear and tames the wild beast.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2021