Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Fear of God

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB


A monk keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it." Rule of St. Benedict 7.10

I often give retreats and talks on the theme of Benedictine spirituality. When I get to monastic humility, I focus on the seventh chapter of Benedict's Rule, where St. Benedict writes that the first step of humility is to keep the fear of God before one's eyes and never forget it.

I'm frequently asked by retreatants a very sensible question. If, as St. John taught, there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18), then why is the "Fear of God" considered by St. Benedict as the first step in a series of 12 spiritual disciplines that not only perfects humility but ends in perfect love?

As far as monastic values are concerned, none is greater than the gifts of the Holy Spirit listed by Isaiah the prophet.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him -
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord -
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2-3)

It's interesting that fear of the Lord is repeated by Isaiah; it's not only a gift in itself, but the delight we take in it is a gift and a sign of grace! Each of the gifts of the Spirit is, in various ways, reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict, but none is more fundamental perhaps than fear of the Lord.

According to RB 7, unless the monk strives to keep the fear of God always before his eyes, he can make no real progress in the spiritual life. Now this is not the kind of fear we usually think of as being afraid of something, that kind of fear perfect love casts out, for as St. John also states, whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)

St. Benedict roots the fear of God in a common theme often used today in mental wellness training - mindfulness. Benedict writes that the monk must "never forget everything God has commanded," keeping in mind that "he is always seen by God in heaven, and that his actions everywhere are in God's sight." (RB 7.11-13) Being mindful of God requires awareness that each moment of our lives contains an opportunity to act "like God," i.e. with love.

If we want to arrive at "perfect charity," we must strive to be attentive to what love demands of us in the present moment. This requires practice. In the monastic tradition, prayer with the Word of God plays a vital role in developing authentic fear of the Lord. Praying with the Bible every day can lead to a greater awareness of the commands of the Lord as they present themselves in the "here and now," thus allowing one to respond with love.

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.