What to do with Fear?

What to do with Fear?

Glynn Cardy, Devil’s Night 2022

Beginning tonight, the next few days all have names: Devil’s Night, All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.  These days, called Allhallowtide, were for the remembering of the dead, both the exemplary saints and our more mundane kin. 

This ‘tide’, as befits our understandings of death, is an odd mix of love and affection, and fear and laughter.  For we, like our forebears, recognize the inevitability of death and yet fear that it may come too soon.  And one way to deal with something we fear is to joke about it.

So, on All Saints Day we remember those who have shaped and influenced us, literally singing their praises.  In the old language: ‘all the saints and martyrs, known and unknown.’

On All Souls Day we remember all the dead, whether considered saintly or not, or even Christian or not.  In the old understandings, judgement on one’s heaven-bound status was left entirely to God.  (Though lots of humans have regularly thought they know better!)

One English tradition on this day was souling, in which bands of poorer children and adults went round to the houses of the well-to-do begging money, apples, ale, or cake.  In some parts specially baked soul-cakes were prepared in readiness.  Maybe it was thought the well-to-do would be more generous on the day of remembering their dead?

All Hallows’ Eve, which has grabbed the secular imagination (and maybe always was a pre-Christian Celtic practice), hails from the belief that prior to All Saints’ Day the supposed veil between the material world and the afterlife thinned.  In fear of these spirits of the dead recognizing the living, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities. 

Today, not wanting to acknowledge that we believe in dead spirits or fear them, or that there are thin-places, we instil in Halloween a sense of gaiety, of dressing up, making scary jack-o-lanterns, and wandering the neighbourhood.  Laughing and joking at things we fear is one way of trying to come to terms with them.

Devil’s Night, October 30th, not dissimilarly from Halloween, was a time for pranks and mischief.  And therefore, a night that didn’t get much encouragement from the authorities.  In some places, like with Halloween, the night has unfortunately been an excuse for acts of destruction and maliciousness.

J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series – the highest selling book series of all time – offers us, often spiced with humour, valuable insights about the big things in life.  Like friendship.  And love.  And fear.  

In the first reading today, there is a spells lesson where the children, under the tutelage of Professor Lupin, have to deal with a magical creature called a boggart.  A boggart resides in a wardrobe, but once the door is opened it changes its shape into whatever we fear most.

So, if we fear a person, the boggart will become him or her.  If we fear ridicule, the boggart will embody it.  If we fear death and loss, it will embody it.  The boggart personifies fear. 

This is not dissimilar to how the devil was created by religious authorities in the past.  It personified what they feared.  Whether that fear was greed, or sexual appetite, or ‘the Jews’.  The devil caricatured what religious authorities feared, and then was marketed to the populace as a real, sinister, supernatural being embodying those fears. 

The devil was a way to stigmatize people that the religious authorities didn’t like, building on fears and reinforcing them with prejudices.  And then turn ordinary Christians into persecutors of those so stigmatized.  The devil was a product of a system of control and classification, and when it/he is used or spoken of in any serious speech today we should be immediately wary.

Yet, like Rowling’s boggart, one of the best ways of dealing with the devil is to laugh at it.  You charm, calm, this fear by laughing at it.  You deny the religious authorities, who still in many places propagate the notion of evil devils in the guise of foreigners, or financiers, or profligates, by lampooning both the devils and their creators.  

You can of course take fear seriously, while still denying devils any reality or power.

One of the best stories we have about fear in the Bible is the encounter between Esau and Jacob in Genesis 32.

Very briefly, and the beauty of Genesis is that its stories are not brief, Jacob was the second born son of Isaac and Rebekah.  By a few seconds.  For his twin, Esau, came out first.  And thus, in the world of primogeniture, Esau inherited the patriarchal blessing – and all the goodies that went with that – and Jacob did not.  But Jacob, in this dysfunctional lineage of favoured and unfavoured sons, was schooled for resentment, and before long had tricked Esau out of the blessing and associated goodies. 

Fast forward many years.  Jacob’s life (surprise, surprise) has not been full of blessing.  The distrust inherent in favouritism’s DNA does that.  Life’s been a struggle for Jacob.  He’s been tricked in turn (by his father-in-law Laban).  And yet, he now has two wives and two bidie-ins (as the Scots would say), who between the four of them have produced eleven children to date, and just a tad of dysfunctional DNA.  And now, he has slaves and cattle and is on the cusp of entering the land of Canaan, where he will be free at last to be the patriarch he feels he deserves to be.

Then, lo and behold, along comes news that Esau, with four hundred fighting men, prepped by wily ‘ol Laban (who needs enemies when you have him as a father-in-law?!), is coming to exact revenge.  Stealing a birthright blessing, even though there’s been little blessing in your life, is no little thing.

So, Jacob is afraid.  He sends gifts to Esau hoping to placate him.  No good, he’s still coming.  He divides his family into two groups to lessen the likelihood of them all dying.  Then he sends more gifts.  Then he prays to God for deliverance.  And then, lastly, he crosses the Ford of Jabbok, and awaits his fate alone.

Up ‘til this point you could say that Jacob has expended all resources – material, financial, spiritual – in order to avoid the calamity coming.  Now he is alone.  Resource depleted.  Fearful.  No longer confident in his own cleverness and subtly.

And then we hear in the text that he wrestled all night with a ‘man’.  Was this a dream?  Maybe.  Can dreams wound you?  Maybe.  And who was this so-called ‘man’, for in verse 30 he’s described as God?  Jewish sources, not comfortable with God man equivalents, inserts the word ‘angel’ in there. 

Some Jewish sources name the wrestler as the angel of Esau.  He was, in this reading, wrestling with the messenger of Esau, his twin.  Or just, in the dream, wrestling with Esau.  Like, allegedly, he had in the womb.  And maybe God is in, expressed through, that with which we wrestle.  As Karen Armstrong says in her commentary on this passage the ‘faces’ of Jacob, Esau, and God are all one and the same.

This was all about Jacob coming to terms not only with his wronged brother but the ‘Esau’ within him.  He had to face that alter ego he’d hated and tried to discard.  He had to face that part of his personality he feared.  In the night, in the wrestling dream, he eventually came to a place of peace with his conflicted self.

Unlike J. K. Rowling’s excerpt from Harry Potter, this Genesis text doesn’t suggest we laugh at what we fear in order to disempower it.  Rather it suggests that we look at, even wrestle with, what we fear – realizing that fears often arise from childhood events and trauma – and find in the wrestling some resolution, even some empowerment.  And in so doing the fear, embodied say as an aggrieved sibling, or as death itself, may find its power dismantled by the therapeutic revisiting in mind and dream of our old hurts and struggles.

The love that overcomes fear is the name of a journey that faces into fear, rather than tries to run from it; that is patient and accepting, rather than denying and avoiding.