Why faith and fear of death are not incompatible
I have spent the last three years urging people to take up the long-held Christian tradition of meditation on death. I started doing this after beginning to meditate on my own death daily in imitation of the founder of my religious order, Blessed James Alberione. One benefit of the practice of regular meditation on death is a decreased fear of death—an attitude to which all Christians are called. However, the Christian attitude toward death is nuanced, especially now, in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, some of the current calls to Christian fearlessness in the face of death have oversimplified the challenge before us and have made it seem like any fear of Covid-19 means that our faith is lacking. This is not true.
First, faith and fear are not incompatible. Scripture tells us over and over again not to be afraid because we need to hear it over and over. Fear does not disappear the moment we are baptized. In fact, a fear of death may indicate we have a clearer understanding of the physical reality and implications of death. In City of God, St. Augustine described the startling reality of physical death as “the very violence with which body and soul are wrenched asunder.” Put this way, how could we not reasonably fear this in some sense? Blessed Alberione once wrote: “Death is repugnant to nature; thus nature rebels at the thought of it. We should not be surprised at this. Our Divine Savior himself, who became like us in all but sin, felt this repugnance also” (see Mk 14:34).
Second, to deny that one experiences fear in the face of death is not courage. St. Thomas Aquinas described the virtue of fortitude as “that which binds the will firmly to the good of reason in face of the greatest evils...and the most fearful...is death.” In other words, because death is the greatest of evils we should fear it. In fact, courage requires that we recognize that death is fearful and yet nevertheless continue to reason well and to act virtuously in the face of that fear. For this we have the example of not only many of the saints but of Jesus himself. Luckily for us, Jesus did not protect himself from the full range of human emotions. He was not a stoic robot who leaned into the comfort of his divinity when things got scary, uncomfortable or painful. Rather, his heart was troubled; he wept; he agonized. But he also continued forward, trusting in the Father and doing his will.
To deny that one experiences fear in the face of death is not courage.
Third, fear of death is reasonably heightened at the prospect of sudden death. In the Litany of the Saints, one of the early prayers of the Church, we pray, “From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us, O Lord.” The church has prayed against sudden death for centuries because preparation for death is crucial. If we have even the vaguest sense of the awesome reality of God’s judgment that awaits us all after death, we should rightly tremble at the prospect, at least in filial fear. Of course, God is merciful, and we must trust in his mercy in these times when some are dying alone without the aid of the sacraments. However, we also rightly and reasonably fear sudden death—for ourselves and others. For this reason, the church exhorts us to regularly meditate on our death so that we may be prepared no matter how or when death finds us.
In light of these points, how might we be called as Christians to respond to the reasonable and human fear of death, especially sudden death? As with all the paradoxical elements of our faith, we are called to hold together the tensions of multiple truths: that we will reasonably fear death but at the same time embrace the fearlessness that faith affords us. Fear and fearlessness. We cannot have one without the other. St. Francis de Sales wrote, “We ought to fear death without fearing it.” Fearlessness in the face of death, without some degree of fear, is simply foolishness. And to fear without at least glimpses of fearlessness is simply to fall into the abyss of existential anxiety and despair without clinging to the consolation of faith.
We are called to hold together the tensions of multiple truths.
As fearful and fearless Christians, we are called to lovingly and cautiously care for our own lives and those of others, acknowledging the startling beauty and value of human life in all stages. At the same time, we are also called to live virtuously and courageously in response to God’s will for us. Humbly acknowledging our fear while affirming the power of faith, we recognize that faith in the midst of fear is precisely what makes our faith a gift in times of tribulation and struggle. When we deny the reality of fear, we deny the gift of faith. Therefore, with the grace of God, may we move forward feeling both fearful and fearless in the face of death, confident that our Savior has conquered even this greatest evil.