St. John of the Cross once proposed this axiom” “Learn to understand more by not understanding than by understanding.”
A curious statement, though obviously a profound one. What does he mean by this? How do we understand “by not understanding”?
Imagine the following: Someone who has known you, perhaps for only a short while, comes up to you one day and says: “You know, I’ve got you figured out. I understand you. You’re typically Scottish, the way all the Scots are. You’re stubborn like your father, uptight like your mother, an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality charts, and a number six on the Enneagram – that’s why you never think for yourself! You’re as predictable as fog in a Scottish winter. You hold no surprises!”
Would you feel understood? Would you not instead feel violated and angry?
Now imagine the reverse: Someone who has known you deeply for a long time (your spouse perhaps, or a brother, or sister, or a life-long friend) comes up to you and says: “You are a mystery to me. I’ve known you for most of my life and I still can’t figure you out. Sometimes I think I understand you, but you constantly surprise me.
“There’s a depth and a complexity to you, something beyond me, that I’ve never fully grasped and I feel good about that. It adds to your mystique! All these years – and I am still just getting to know you!”
Wouldn’t you fell more understood, in this case, by not being understood? Wouldn’t you feel freer to be yourself and more valued as a person?
When Scripture says “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” essentially this is what it has in mind, namely, the kind of reverence and respect that backs off and lets others be fully who they are. To properly fear someone is to be afraid of violating them, of not respecting them properly.
That is what fear of the Lord is and that is why it is a gift from the Holy Spirit, a warm, positive energy that emanates right out of the joy and gratitude that lives within the Trinity. Yet it is a curious thing: how can fear be positive?
Fear is almost never seen as positive. Fear connotes repression, timidity, oppressions, lack of nerve and immaturity, all of which are bad.
Moreover, given that so many today are over-reacting to our religious backgrounds, there is in our culture a neurosis and a paranoia about fear of God. The term “fear of God” is today a lightning rod that constellates and draws upon itself a lot of free-floating anger. That is unfortunate and surely a sign of a certain adolescence within us.
A certain fear is not only healthy, it’s necessary for love, peace and happiness. A healthy fear is not a fear of punishment or of experiencing guilt. Nor, like Prometheus, is it a fear of stealing fire from the gods. God is not threatened by human creativity. God is trying to set us on fire.
A healthy fire is built right into the dynamics of love itself. It is a fear of violating others, of not fully respecting who they are in all their uniqueness and complexity. It is the fear of self-inflating, of being insensitive, of being boorish, of hurting those whom we love.
We experience this fear, and appreciate most its value, when we first fall in love with someone. In the glow of first fervor, that delightful feeling of finally finding that one person who will make us whole, we know healthy fear. At that point in the relationship, we are over-cautious, respectful, understanding and overly fearful that we might disappoint that significant other by doing something stupid or selfish.
When we first fall in love we do not take the other for granted, but respect his or her otherness, uniqueness and complexity. We also live in face of the fact that this person is a gift in our own lives.
But familiarity breeds contempt, and, soon enough, as we have all sadly experienced, that initial caution and respect disappear, replaced precisely by a lack of fear – and that one so-unique, so-rich person we fell in love with is now somebody familiar, someone we understand, and someone before whose love we no longer have any apprehensions.
Love shuts off at that moment. It has no choice. It is being violated.
Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It is also the secret to love, harmony and respect. One of the greatest gifts any of us could receive from the Holy Spirit is the gift of healthy fear. Few things would help us as much to become more gracious, respectful, and loving.
If we each had the wisdom that comes from fear of the Lord, the face of the earth would be renewed because our marriages, families, churches and places of work would explode with new meaning as we began to understand more by not understanding and began to see things familiar as unfamiliar again.