RICHARD ROHR has written that “Religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is lived by people who have been through hell.” Lorraine Cavanagh is interested in the latter. Her book is a concise but helpful guide to the parts of hell that people inhabit or pass through in their lives on this earth, most of them built on foundations of fear. It is a fear shaped by two universal and fundamental questions: “Am I loved?” and “Am I safe?”
Whereas some theologians will look at the scriptures and conclude that there is an original blessing or an original sin, Cavanagh argues for an original loneliness. God has compassion on this innate loneliness, providing the company of nature, the intimacies and calm of human relationship, and the promise of God’s faithful presence, no matter what happens to us. What stops us receiving these gifts and growing through them is the paralysis of fear, often expressed as anger, and that is why, she concludes, “it is not surprising that much of Jesus’s ministry, perhaps all of it, is concerned with dealing with that fear.” It is also why the invitation not to be afraid is one of the most frequently voiced in the Bible.
Of course, we are living in one of the most fearmongering times in human history. There is a great deal of power and money available to individuals and organisations who can perpetuate these fears — from insurance companies to pharmaceuticals, from advertisers to alarmist politicians. Your fear is worth billions and allows someone to take control. There are also, though, the genuine collective and personal fears we live with at the moment: Has the planet a future? What will happen to my job after Brexit? Am I a failure in love and life? We find it hard to own our fears, even though they connect us to each other, and we can end up living in defiance of them or in hiding from them. It can be a sad and painful business in which life ends up feeling very hidden away in us.
How should a person of faith respond to all this fear in the world and in ourselves? Cavanagh encourages an honest recognition of fears, but then a belief that the full stop of fear can be transformed into a comma by a self-acceptance and compassion grounded on the embrace we find in Christ. This may take a lifetime and beyond, but it is the only way in which our armoured but vulnerable defences begin to disintegrate. As she writes, “Truth is revealed as we seek to know the God of love from a profound sense of need, and in reverence for that need as we sense it in others.” This is a timely, thoughtful, and necessary book that can, I hope, be built on and expanded.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
In Such Times: Reflections on living with fear
Cascade Books £16
Church Times Bookshop £14.40