For a while, when I was in my 30s, I was into rock climbing. I never scaled any really large faces, although I did do a few three pitch climbs (a pitch is a little less than the length of a rope—50 metres). There are several levels of fear and even kinds of fear that one must encounter and work through as one climbs. There are irrational fears, like the fear of heights, or of spiders or of snakes—all of which one encounters rock climbing in Southern California. There is the fear of equipment failure, or the more realistic fear of making a mistake with the equipment—knots are checked and rechecked, anchors are trebled, everything is thought through. Then there is the fear of your partner failing, of his not paying attention or not being careful when care is most needed. Learning to confront and overcome these fears in myself was one of the most important and inspiring aspects of rock climbing for me.
However, there was also another kind of fear, and I’m not even sure if fear is the right word for it. There is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the massiveness of the rock itself and your complete dependence on it. You are on the rock by its permission, so to speak. The rock is holding you, holding you because it does not even notice you—you are that insignificant. Clinging to the side of a massive bolder a hundreds of feet from the ground, you get a profound sense of your insignificance, of your dependence, of your contingency—the fact that you do not need to exist. Humility might be a better word than fear to describe this feeling. This humble fear, or humbling fear, makes life very simple on the side of a rock. There is only you and the equipment and your partner—and the rock. This simplicity makes something else possible: pure Joy.
I have felt joy more intensely while rock climbing than I have felt it in just about any other context of my life. Nothing gets in the way. The fear brings me to a place of humility and simplicity and then joy breaks through. The hot sun, the cool rock, the view of eagles soaring below you. The quiet. You don’t even notice the pain. A gash here, a few bruises there, and still all you feel is peace. Deep breaths of cool air, spiders and other small insects scurry in and out of cracks in their elevated world, and nothing in my head. No stray thoughts, no wandering fantasies. Having harnessed fear, trusting my partner and trusting my equipment, I don’t think at all. I just move, pulling myself higher, negotiating tricky patches, breathing, breathing, and moving again. It is all so simple, so peaceful, so full of joy.
I sometimes think the fear of God is supposed to be experienced like this humbling fear. It is not a fear that something bad will happen if I screw up, if I or the equipment or my partner fail. No it is not really about me at all. The fear of God is like the feeling of humble contingency. The feeling of dependence. The feeling of existence at the permission of another, another whom I cannot manipulate or control, another whom I can never change for he is so massive, but another whom I can work with, who at all times is holding me up. The fear of God is a fear that humbles us. It humbles us and simplifies everything. And this simplicity makes joy and peace possible.
St. Isaac the Syrian puts it this way. He says that all of life is a fetid sea which we must cross. We cross this sea in the boat of repentance with the oars of fear and heading to harbour of love. There are two dynamics at work: fear is propelling us and love is drawing us. However, fear here is not, at least I do not think it is, the fear of punishment or the fear of failure, for the love of God is also drawing us. Rather, it is the fear that comes from attention, the fear that comes from the growing realization of reality, of things as they really are, and the distance between what I am and what I am called to be, what God is. Love is drawing me, and at the same time I am aware that I have not embraced that love, that I have preferred my own reality, my own interpretation, my own loves. And it is this very realization of my own loves as not real, not real in the presence of the Great Love, that is drawing me. It is this awareness that produces this fear, or perhaps instead of fear, we might just as truly call it a heightened state of awareness. I am aware of the distance. I am aware of the sea’s threatenings. I am aware of Love drawing me, and I am aware of my tendency to reject or despise or to twist it to try to make it conform to my image—instead of allowing Love to conform me to His Image. I am aware of all this and it somehow motivates me. It motivates me to row, to repent, to work, to change. It creates humility, the profound feeling of dependence. And it directs and compels me to love.
And reaching the harbour of love, the oars of fear are let go. There is no fear in love.
This metaphor, like all metaphors, is both useful and misleading. It is useful in that it helps us understand how fear and love can work together; but it is misleading in that it implies that the journey takes place only once. However, our lives are too layered for that. Life is a continual journey toward love through the vehicle of repentance, drawn by love and propelled by fear one moment, only to have fear fade away and be replaced by only love. And then somehow sin slips in and the boat of repentance stalls. This calls for a renewed sense of fear and action in repentance which is soon lost in a renewed awareness of the embrace of love. With the fear of God, with faith and with love we draw near. It is not either fear or love. It is fear and love leading to love only. This is our journey. This is how we motivate ourselves in repentance, this is how we make our way across the fetid sea of this life.
Every time I put on the harness to climb, I felt the fear anew, but fear quickly gives way to joy the more you climb. And when the day is done, it is the joy that remains. The joy stays with you and the fear passes away.