Lightning, thunder, thunderbolts, tempests, inundations, earthquakes, and other such unforeseen accidents, excite even the most indevout persons to fear God, and nature, which goes before reasoning in those occurrences, drives the heart, the eyes, yea the very hands heavenwards to invoke the assistance of the most holy Divinity, according to the common sentiment of mankind, which is, says Titus Livius, that such as serve the Almighty prosper, and such as contemn him are afflicted. In the storm which imperilled Jonas, the mariners feared with a great fear, and immediately each of them turned to his god. They were ignorant, says S. Jerome, of the truth, yet they knew there was a Providence, and believed it was by the judgment of heaven that they were in this danger; as those of Malta, when they saw S. Paul, after the shipwreck, attacked by the viper, believed that it was from the divine vengeance. And indeed thunder and lightning, tempests, thunderbolts, are called by the Psalmist, Voices of the Lord; and he says further, that they fulfil his word, because they proclaim his fear, and are as ministers of his justice. And again, desiring that the divine Majesty should make his enemies tremble, he says: Send forth lightning and thou shalt scatter them: shoot out thy arrows, and thou shalt trouble them: where he terms thunderbolts the arrows and darts of God. And before the Psalmist, Samuel's good mother had already sung, that even God's enemies would fear him, if he would thunder over them from heaven. Indeed Plato, in his Gorgias and elsewhere, testifies that there was some sense of fear among the pagans, not only concerning the chastisements which the sovereign justice of God inflicts in this world, but also concerning the punishments which he inflicts in the other life upon the souls of those who have incurable sins. So deeply is the instinct of fearing the Divinity graven in man's nature.
This fear, however, when felt after the manner of a first movement, or natural feeling, is neither to be praised nor blamed in us, since it proceeds not from our free-will. Yet it is an effect from a very good cause, and a cause of a very good effect; for it comes from the natural knowledge which God has given us of his Providence, and gives us to understand how closely we depend on the sovereign omnipotence, moving us to implore his aid; and when this feeling is found in a faithful soul, it much advances her in goodness. Christians (amidst the dread which thunder, tempests, and other natural dangers cause in them) invoke the sacred names of Jesus and of Mary, make the sign of the Cross, prostrate themselves before God, and make many good acts of faith, hope and religion. The glorious saint Thomas Aquinas, being naturally subject to terror when it thundered, was accustomed to say, as an ejaculatory prayer, the divine words which the church so much esteems: The Word was made flesh. Upon this fear, then, divine love frequently makes acts of complacency and benevolence: I will praise thee, for thou art fearfully magnfied. Let every one fear thee, O Lord! O ye kings understand: receive instruction, you that judge the earth. Serve ye the Lord with fear: and rejoice unto him with trembling.
But there is another fear, taking its origin from faith, which teaches us that after this mortal life there are punishments fear fully eternal, or eternally to be feared, prepared for such as in this world have offended the Divine Majesty and die without being reconciled to him; that at the hour of death the soul shall be judged by a particular judgment; and that at the end of the world all shall rise and appear together to be judged again in the universal judgment. For these Christian truths, Theotimus, strike with an extreme dread the heart that deeply ponders them. And indeed how could one represent unto himself those eternal horrors without shuddering and trembling with apprehension? Now when these sentiments of fear take such root in our souls that they drive and banish thence the affection and will to sin, as the sacred Council of Trent speaks, they are certainly very wholesome. We have conceived of thy fear, O Lord, and have brought forth the spirit of salvation, is said in Isaias. That is, thy wrathful face terrified us, and made us conceive and bring forth the spirit of penance, which is the spirit of salvation; so did the Psalmist say: There is no peace for my bones, because of my sins, yea, they tremble, because of thy wrath.
Our Saviour, who came to establish the law of love amongst us, ceases not to inculcate this fear: Fear him, he says, that can destroy both soul and body into hell. The Ninivites did penance upon the threat of their destruction and damnation, and their repentance was agreeable to God; and, in a word, this fear is comprised amongst the gifts of the Holy Ghost, as many ancient Fathers have noted.
But if fear does not exclude the will of sinning and affection for sin, it is certainly evil, and like to that of the devils, who often cease to do harm for fear of being tormented by exorcisms, without ceasing to desire and will evil, which is their meditation for ever; or it is like to that of the miserable galley-slave, who would like to tear out his overseer's heart, though he dares not stir from the oar for fear of being lashed; or like to the fear of that great heresiarch of the last century, who confessed that he hated a God who punished the wicked. Truly he who loves sin, and would willingly commit it, in spite of the will of God, though he will not commit it simply because he fears to be damned, has a horrible and detestable fear: for though he has not the will to execute the sin, yet he has the execution of it in his will, since he would do it if fear held him not back, and since it is as it were by force that he does not put his will into effect.
To this fear we may add another, less malicious indeed yet equally useless: such as that of the judge Felix, who, hearing God's judgments spoken of, was terrified; yet he did not for all that give up his avarice; and that of Baltassar, who, seeing that miraculous hand which wrote his condemnation upon the wall, was so struck with dread that his countenance changed, and his thoughts troubled him: and the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees struck one against the other: and yet he did not do penance. Now to what purpose do we fear evil, if our fear does not make us resolve to avoid it?
The fear, then, of those who as slaves observe the law of God to avoid hell, is very good; but much more noble and desirable is the fear of mercenary Christians, who, as hirelings, faithfully labour, yet not principally for any love they bear their masters but to be paid the wages promised them. O! if the eye could see, if the ear could hear, or if it could enter into the heart of man what God hath prepared for those that serve him -- Ah! what a dread would one have of violating God's commandments, for fear of losing those immortal rewards! what tears would be shed, what groans would be uttered, when they were lost by sin! Yet this fear would be blameworthy if it contained in it the exclusion of holy love; for he who should say: I will not serve God for any love I intend to have for him, but only to obtain the rewards he promises, -- would commit blasphemy, preferring the reward to the master, the benefit to the benefactor, the inheritance to the father, and his own profit to God Almighty, as we have more amply shown in the second Book.
But, finally, when we are afraid of offending God not to avoid the pains of hell or the loss of heaven, but only because God being our good Father we owe him honour, respect, obedience, then our fear is filial, because a good child does not obey his father on account of the power he has to punish his disobedience, or because he might disinherit him, but purely because he is his father; in such sort that though his father might be old, powerless, and poor, he would not serve him with less diligence, but rather, like the bird of filial piety, would assist him with the more care and affection. So Joseph seeing that good man Jacob his father, old, in want, and brought under his son's government, ceased not to honour, serve and reverence him with a tenderness more than filial, and which was so great that his brothers having observed it, considered that it would even operate after the father's death, and therefore worked on it to obtain pardon from him, saying: Your father commanded us before he died, that we should say thus much to thee from him: I beseech thee to forget the wickedness of thy brethren, and the sin and malice they practised against thee: we also pray thee, to forgive the servants of the God of thy father this wickedness. And when Joseph heard this, he wept, so readily did his filial heart melt when his deceased father's wishes and will were represented to him. Those, therefore, fear God with a filial affection who fear to displease him purely and simply because he is their most sweet, most benign and most amiable Father.
At the same time, when it happens that this filial fear is joined, mingled and tempered with the servile fear of eternal damnation, or with the mercenary fear of losing heaven, it ceases not to be agreeable to God, and is called a beginning fear, that is a fear of such as are beginners and learners in the exercises of divine love. For as young boys when they first begin to ride, feeling their horse curvet a little, not only cleave close to him with their knees, but also catch hard hold of the saddle with their hands, but after they have had a little more practice simply press their saddles close; -- even so, novices and apprentices in God's service, finding themselves in desperate straits amid the assaults which the enemy delivers at the beginning, not only make use of filial but also of mercenary and servile fear, and hold themselves on as they can, that they may not fall from their design.