Fear is antithetical to the Catholic heart, as is retreating into seclusion out of fear. Ours is a boldly incarnational faith with an attitude of universal togetherness, and the secular agenda at large is one of fearful de-incarnation and isolation. Say what you will about COVID-19, much of this dehumanizing fear and politicized separation is anti-Catholic and undermining our freedom in a palpable, even perverse, way. But in October—the very month in which Americans “celebrate” fear—Catholics celebrate the life of a saint that showed us how to be fearless in togetherness with Christ and His Mystical Body.
Though many Catholics struggle with anxiety—whether COVID induced or otherwise—Catholicism should be a cure for anxiety. If Christ taught us anything, it was that we should not be afraid, and that those plights which we fear, are actually occasions for beatitude. Holiness is a kind of happiness, therefore, and good cheer is the strongest sign of saintliness. As one of the merriest and wittiest saints in the calendar used to say, “God defend me from gloomy saints,” and we might paraphrase, “God defend us from fearful Catholics.” For all her heavenly humor, even Saint Teresa of Ávila had to conquer the gloom of fear.
Teresa was a cheeky girl born in Ávila, Spain in 1515 to a romantic mother and a rigid father. When her mother died, fourteen-year-old Teresa was sent to an Augustinian convent, where she became very ill. With her recovery came a new sickness, however: the sickness of fear—fear for life’s wasted opportunities, fear in her folly and weakness, fear of everlasting damnation. Consumed with fear, Teresa vowed to live a life of strict penance, and though the prospect distressed her sorely, she ran away from home to join the Carmelites.
The Carmelite Order was founded upon poverty and austerity, but in 16th century Spain it had become more like a club for single ladies, complete with a social life, fashionable pursuits, and pleasure trips. Teresa, with her quick wit, became popular among the sisters and, with easy living, effectively distracted herself from her anxiety.
Then something happened. While in prayer, Teresa collapsed before a crucifix, suddenly and strangely transported by Divine Love. When she emerged from her ecstasy, she was not afraid anymore. Her path was clear and bright. She would live courageously for Love alone and renounce all the worldly troubles that had hitherto held her from her heavenly Bridegroom.
The closer Teresa drew to Jesus, the more she saw how far afield the Carmelites had drawn. With characteristic cheer and spirit, she boldly undertook to return the order back to its roots of simplicity and selflessness. Though she was aggressively contested by the Inquisition for her revolution, setting King Philip II and Pope Gregory XIII at odds over her efforts to reform the Carmelites, Teresa’s charm, persistence, and wisdom overcame her opponents as she fearlessly founded new convents dedicated to the ancient canon.
Would we all could be so brave in the face of fear, and even persecution, and fly to those who might profit from our unabashed, human resistance of the falsehoods that are drawing us apart as a race, a nation, and a church. While I applaud President Trump’s rejection of the Zoom-o-sphere, the unfortunate cancellation of the second presidential debate due to contagion concerns surrounding the coronavirus is the next national stunt of hyper-emphasis on separation, on isolation, even at the expense of the American people and the American republic. The mandates of “distancing” have taken us by storm, primed as we were with the self-imposed distancing of the Internet and the cell phone. Now all are six feet apart lest we end up six feet under.
Frankly, this insanity has been a long time coming. The news media is a confirmed barrage of bias—unclear and disingenuous—and the antiseptic online existence is admittedly toxic. But these have nevertheless colluded to hole people up in their houses with the fear of death on them, even as they hang plastic skeletons on their porch and prop up zombies in their yard for Halloween. Fear has become part of the trappings of our times and Americans are trembling in their boots whether because of getting sick, the economy rollercoaster, a second Trump term, rioting Marxism, creeping totalitarianism, or fill in the blank. But Saint Teresa said, “I am more afraid of those who are terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself.”
We are living among people pounded and paralyzed by fear, as Saint Teresa was and then warned against, and we are in need of a similar mystical reconnection that will give us the courage, the humility, and the humor to save our country as she saved the Carmelites. That will be difficult without the psychological comfort of faces, handshakes, or group events. We are mired by social distancing, distance learning, remote working, political soundbytes, and mail-in ballots. We are becoming like Chesterton’s madman in Orthodoxy:
[I]n many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
And all with a cynical (and sometimes sinister) posturing about caring for people by staying away from them. Shortly before becoming pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously said in a 2005 homily that modernity struggles under a “dictatorship of relativism,” whereby we are “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine.” While the doctrines of fashionable fear concur with the pronouncements of our Pope Emeritus, it should also be noted that nothing goes with dictatorship so well as cynicism, which our society has in spades and is a far cry from the wit Saint Teresa sported.
Georges Bernanos, the author of Diary of a Country Priest, once said, “Democracies cannot dispense with hypocrisy any more than dictatorships can with cynicism.” When truth and basic freedoms are rejected or relegated to relativism, a sardonic dismissal from a position of assumed superiority is an invaluable asset. And that is the sneer underlying “Black lives matter,” or “Science is real”—(though science isn’t real enough to acknowledge that all lives matter at conception).
The dictatorship of relativism has taken a new turn in its cynical tyranny. There is nothing so relativist, so individualistic, so personally true as isolation. Live your truth, as the saying goes—and, better yet, do so all alone, unencumbered by everyone else’s truth. The only common principle is physical and mental distance. Disengage from the real, become disembodied relativists. Lives lie in the balance. As the mad-scientist monster movie put it back in the 80’s, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Of course, Our Lord said, “Do not be afraid.” Saint Teresa of Ávila was not afraid to build walls of wood and stone that holy men and women might build interior castles for the Lord. And she made sure that they were both strongholds of joy, knowing well that “there is a time for partridge and a time for penance.” But when penance came unlooked for and Christ whispered, “This is how I treat My friends,” Teresa’s wry repartee was, “No wonder You have so few.” We could all benefit from a little humor these days.
Let us follow her lead and strike out with courage to speak the truth and the love of Christ openly and cheerfully in a society that has buried itself in COVID fear. It’s like the challenge of navigating the postmodern mess of Halloween—drawing the emphasis away from the symbols of sheer terror and towards those of merriment and the meaningful. Believers must not fear death, for a true faith resists those influences that render death ultimately fearful. Saint Teresa of Ávila showed the world that there is no such thing as a fearful saint, and that a life lived with God and for God—and with and for God’s people—is one of both heavenly rapture and earthly confidence.
(Editor’s note: This essay was first published, in slightly different form, at CWR on October 15, 2020.)
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