The hall of your house is so nice and proper; and the front room is kept so well. All the right pictures are hanging there, the carpets are clean, the furniture nicely arranged. This is the route for visitors who are not really part of your life. But your friends come in the back door, directly into the kitchen. That is the place where everything happens: not only the cooking, but all the talking and laughing and fighting; it is the place where the family really lives. It is often a bit of a mess, but when you are there you know you are home. Still, front and back are the same house; the front door and the back door are two valid approaches to the one family home. It is so with many things in our Faith: you can approach from the front or from the back. In the New Testament, the opposite of faith is a certain kind of fear: not the natural instinct of fear, but the kind of neurotic fear that immobilises you, that wants nothing to happen, good or bad. What I want to say now is that the front door and hall of your house are like the Creed we recite at Mass (everything is correct, nothing is missing); but if you want to know what's really happening in your house of faith, approach by the back door: look at your fears.
Hundreds of times I have asked groups of people, young and old, to write down their fears. It is a useful thing to do, for while you are writing down your fears you are looking at them, and that is always the first step towards managing them wisely. I always asked the group not to sign their names, and I always asked their permission to read those pieces of paper to the whole group afterwards. I found over the years that the three greatest fears were death, loneliness and the unknown. But two of these were double: death was sometimes one's own death and sometimes the death of someone near; and the unknown was sometimes the 'spooky' unknown and sometimes simply the future. That makes a list of five: one's own death, the death of someone close, loneliness, the future and the spooky side of life. I always got this list, not from every person without fail (human beings are not predictable even in this) but with remarkable regularity. But even if the lists were identical, the human experience would always have a salty individual taste.
Beyond these common five fears there are of course others. There are purely individual fears occasioned by some event in a person’s life, but there are other common ones, I found: some that are distinctive to men and boys, and others to woman and girls. Again, not with absolute regularity nor to the exclusion of the other group, I found that men and boys very frequently have a great fear of making a wrong decision; while women and girls very frequently have a fear of the four elements – fire, air, earth and water: fears of being trapped in a burning building, for example, or of being suffocated, or buried alive or drowned. No doubt, if you asked a man whether he would experience fear in a burning building, he would say yes, but the point is that he doesn’t often think of it when you don’t ask. I have often asked myself why decisions and why the elements. I don’t know the answer, but perhaps it has something to do with men living in their heads, and women being more ‘incarnated’, more in touch with elemental things.
I recommend this exercise: in a quiet moment, take a piece of paper and pencil and write down at random (without thinking too much about it, for you would rationalise it) a full list of all your fears, no matter how particular or detailed. It has the following benefits: ·
While you are doing that you are looking at them, and that is the first step in making peace with them. Fears mainly grab you by the back, when you are running away from them; but when you face them, they diminish,
It will help you to see where your faith is at the moment. Fear and faith are opposites, so when you locate your fear you are also locating the spot where faith has work to do.
We recite the Creed every week; it would be useful to recite occasionally the list of our fears, so that we might see what our next steps of faith will be.