Fear of God

Yesterday I posted about basic prayers that everyone should know. I have gotten a few good suggestions (some via email also). One of the ones that I linked to was the Act of Contrition.

You should have this prayer memorized!

But I would strongly suggest that you don’t memorize just any act of contrition, but specifically, the older/more traditional form. This is not because I am a traditionalist or a conservative or any other label. It is because I think it better expresses sorrow than the various newer forms. Let me explain.

St. Mary Magdalene

There are two kinds of sorrow (perfect and imperfect) and they reflect two different types of “fear”. One is called servile fear and the other is filial fear.

1. Servile fear is the fear of having offended God because of the punishment that our offenses bring. It is the dynamic between a master and his slave or servant.
2. Filial fear is the fear of having offended God because we love him. It is the dynamic between a father and a beloved son.

These types of fear usually coexist in us to one extent or another. But the goal for all of us is that we grow in the love of God to the extent that servile fear is eclipsed by filial fear – so that love of him motivates everything we do and every temptation that we reject.

One of my favorite passages in the Gospels is the one where St. Peter is reconciled to our Lord after the resurrection. Christ asks him three times, “Peter, do you love me?”, and we know the responses well: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”.

But there is something happening here that we can’t see in English.

In the original Greek, the first two times that Jesus asks the question, the word that he uses for “love” is not the same one that Peter responds with. The third time, Jesus goes down to Peter’s level, using the same word for “love” that Peter had already used the two times before. Greek has several different words for “love”, since there really are different degrees of love, whereas English only has one word that gets used (and abused) for all different types. (Think about how we could say in the same conversation “I love my Mom” and “I love pizza” – clearly not the same type of love!)

Trying to render it in English, we might do so as follows:

Jesus: Peter, do you love me?  Peter: Yes, Lord, you know that I greatly like you.
Jesus: Peter, do you love me?  Peter: Yes, Lord, you know that I greatly like you.
Jesus: Peter, do you greatly like me?  Peter: Yes, Lord, you know all things, you know…

Christ is willing to accept a lesser form of love! But it is only a starting point, because look at what he says to Peter next:

“Amen, amen, I say to you: when you were young, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you and lead you to where you do not wish to go.”

What is he saying? What does this mean?

The Lord is setting before Peter a timeline of his life – and of his love. He is saying, in effect: “When you were young, your love was weak and more selfish; you did what you wanted. Now, your love has grown but it still not the love that I asked of you. But when you are old, your love will be perfected and you will lay down your life for me.”

This is the path that we are all called to follow. We have grown in the love of God, but we have a ways to go. There is an admixture of selfishness and self-sacrifice – of servile fear and filial fear – in our hearts.

So… getting back to the Act of Contrition.

When we express our sorrow to God, whether in our daily prayers or in our sacramental confession, it should reflect this reality. And the old Act of Contrition does it better. Look at what it says with respect to sorrow/fear:

I detest…my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, (servile fear)
but most of all, because I have offended thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. (filial fear)

Most of the other acts of contrition out there do not capture this fact as clearly or as well!

So, while I have provided two different forms – the old and a new – on this page, I would strongly encourage you to memorize and use the old one! And, reflect on what it means and ask God daily to help you to grow into a more perfect love of him.

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