A sweet memory came to me recently. Once upon a time I lived in Italy, and in that beautiful country many things are the same as here. In this case, my friends’ toddler had been put to bed before I had come over. Not long into our visit, his little voice began calling out for “Mamma!” with some crying interspersed.
La mamma waited to see if he would calm down, but after a while we went back to check on him. When asked what was the matter, he replied with big brown eyes and a serious voice, “Fa buio. Ho paure.”
The memory remains partly for his own cuteness, and partly because his young mind misunderstood the grammar, making his words cute. In fact, his mamma and I had to conceal our smiles at his words, coming from that serious face.
A bit of grammar: Romance languages say “I have” in some cases where we say “I am.” As in, “I have 23 years,” “I have hunger,” and “I have fear,” rather than “I’m 23,” “I’m hungry,” and “I’m afraid.”
My little friend had changed the ending of the word, making it plural, perhaps to accentuate how very fearful he was. It was something like a three-year-old in English saying in all seriousness, “It’s dark. I’m afraids.”
Funny as it is, his mistake conveys a reality. We rarely have a single fear. Fear tends to strike as a plurality. Perhaps one fear hits us first, but it opens the door to another, and another. If someone did come open the door to check on us and ask what’s the matter, we’d be truthful responding, “I have fears.”
That memory came to mind as I was reading the Daily Office a few days ago while thinking about the word courage.
Though I can’t recall the time and place, I remember the “aha!” when I realized that the word courage comes from the word for heart. How had I not seen it earlier? The Italian for heart is cuore, and once you see it, it’s obvious that “courage” comes from that word, whether you think of it as Italian cuore, French cœur, Spanish corazón, the Latin that started it all, cor.
It dawned on me that day that courage isn’t something I have to find somewhere out there, or something I have to manufacture out of desire or duty, or even a metaphorical muscle I have to develop before I can use it.
I began to see more and more that overcoming fear with courage meant connecting with my heart and the important things residing there.
With my counseling clients, this usually means helping them focus on values or dreams or people they hold in their heart, which can give them what they need to face their fears. Focusing on love for another person can help you overcome the fear of a difficult conversation. Focusing on a deeply-held dream can help you overcome the fear discouraging you from reaching for the next goal.
With believing clients and with myself, it goes even deeper.
Because the heart is not only a place for values and dreams, friends and family. It is the place where we meet God, the place where He searches for hearts open to Him. For the Christ follower it is a place where Christ dwells, along with the Father. It is the mysterious place in our very center, our core, where the Spirit dwelling in us cries, “Abba! Father!”
And it is where we can cry out “Abba Father!” when we are afraid of the dark.
Today I read about new fears arising related to COVID-19 and vaccines. Our country has been through plenty to cause fear over the past year and more, and I’m not exempt from feeling the angst this all stirs up. Fear is all around.
Tonight I read about unrest in France and talk of eventual civil war there. Yesterday about Hungary inviting a Chinese university to open in their country and fears of what that might bring in years to come. Because my husband and I lived through the war in former Yugoslavia years ago, I do not read these things with a disinterested mind. Fear knocks on my heart’s door.
Tomorrow I will sit with one client facing traumatic childhood memories. Another client fears losing control to bipolar disorder and also dying alone. Another, an aging parent, fears for his adult child’s future because of both the genetic tendency toward depression and a disabling accident with lifelong consequences. Fear knocks at the door of my counseling office daily.
“Ho paure.” I have fears. Plural fears.
Even so, I like that the Italian way of saying that separates me from the fears.
Saying “I’m afraid,” or “I’m fearful” is a way of describing my way of being, my very self. But using the verb “to have” leaves me free to be myself, and it says the fears are something else. They may try to work their way inside, but thinking of having fears rather than being fearful really does make a difference.
I grew up singing an 1886 text that included the line “when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,” which is exactly how it feels sometimes in 2021, too. The Italian grammar makes it easier to imagine those howling storms outside the door of my heart, the wind blowing hard, the rain coming in torrents, but I am inside, separate from them, and I don’t have to let them in.
Grammar is a friend also when it comes to courage. Because if courage comes from connecting to our hearts, one of the best things we can do is do regular checks on our hearts—are they singular or plural?
That may sound like a stranger idea than fears being singular or plural. But what actually set my mind on thinking about courage was the readings the other day. They included Psalm 86, with the wonderful wording in verse 11, “Unite my heart to fear thy name.”
I love the sound of that but hadn’t really looked into the wording. I’m no Hebrew scholar, but those who are agree that this means asking God to help us have an undivided heart.
One writer connects it to another Hebrew word for undivided heart that is literally “not heart heart,” that is, not having two hearts, what we more often describe as a divided heart. (2)
Surely the way to grow in courage is to grow more and more in the practices that help our hearts be fully devoted to God, living in His love, thinking His thoughts, resting in His peace. Loving Him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength.
The Christian tradition gives us many practices for spiritual formation. And even though I have a degree in spiritual formation, one challenge for me is that we live in such a fragmented society; even among Christians we tend to have different traditions, different practices, and it often feels like we’re each on our own to figure out what to do and how to do it. Perhaps especially in this post-pandemic experience.
My hope, and my guess, is that as our culture meanders and even runs further away from its Christian roots (3), believers may begin to value more what we have in common with each other, and we may begin to have more unity in our practices both corporately and as individuals. I hope our Christian grammar will become more focused on “we” than on “I.”
I’m thinking of different forms of prayer and ways of reading and internalizing scripture. I’m thinking of the various ways we worship when we’re together.
Maybe because this meditation started out in Italy, I’m also thinking of what we call the sign of the cross. It’s not a practice I grew up with, and it was often seen mainly as a practice that divided certain kinds of Christians from others.
But the more I’ve learned about it and even adopted it to some degree, the more I see great beauty and strength—a kind of courage—that comes from having a physical way to unite my heart to the heart of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to join with believers spanning time and space. It’s a way to wordlessly say, “My heart is surrounded by and filled with the love of God made manifest on the cross, and I join my life to that cross and all it stands for.” It’s a way to pray for the power and blessing that come only from God in Christ. It’s a way to remember that our hearts are the dwelling place of Holy Love, a perfect Love that casts out fears. (4)
But whether it’s making the sign of the cross on our bodies, or having scripture and crosses displayed on our walls, we have to find ways to unite our hearts to the heart of God and let Him do the work of cleaning our hearts out and healing the divisions within them.
The readings for that day with Psalm 86 also included Ezekiel, who was given the scroll of God’s word to eat and encouraged, “Be not afraid….nor be afraid…nor be dismayed…” when God charges him to preach to the people, knowing from the beginning that they would not listen. (5)
In that passage, Ezekiel was given a vision of the glory of the Lord like a rainbow that made him fall on his face. And the gospel reading for the day was the story of the disciples who saw Jesus transfigured, shown in his glory with Moses and Elijah. And the disciples saw the cloud of glory and heard the voice of God, and “they were afraid.” (6)
Thinking on all of this that day, from my little Italian friend to the manifestations of glory resulting in awe, to our culture and its growing darkness, I remembered a book from several years ago. It’s based on the teachings of St. Silouan the Athonite, who lived in a different space but shared time with the man who wrote about “when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail.”
The author begins the book (7):
God has fashioned every heart in a special way, and each heart is His goal, a place wherein He desires to abide that He may manifest Himself. . . . The heart is the true “temple” of man’s meeting with the Lord.
And later (p48) he writes about this paradoxical relationship between fear and love:
Divine fear must possess the believer’s soul as he follows the Lord, for it precedes the love that is given at each degree of the spiritual ascent and always follows as an even deeper humility. . . . [The believer] is, as ever, inspired by this twofold and sane feeling—fear and love. He fears because the Lord is the Creator of all, Whose holiness he cannot attain. He loves, because he senses that God is a merciful Father, Who descends from the height of His glory to dwell in his heart. Perfect love like this casts out imperfect fear. . . .
When doubts and fears assail, when like a little child we say “It’s dark. I’m afraids,” the best thing to do is call out for the parent who protects us, loves us, and gives us what we need, light for the darkness. And what a blessing that our source of courage doesn’t have to come even as far as from down the hallway. He is a loving Father, a sympathizing brother, a consoling Spirit, an awe-inspiring Triune God; and in addition to filling all time and space, He also lives right in our center, in our heart. We live in great mystery.
He knows what lies ahead, He knows what lies all around us, He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows the fears that assail, He knows we are more than those fears. He is the source of courage, He is real, and He is at work in the dark world.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. (8)
(1) 1 Chron. 28:9; Eph. 3:17; Jn. 14:23; Gal. 4:6
(3) For a powerful account of the collapse of our culture and a humble, courageous response to it, I recommend keeping an eye on the writings of Paul Kingsnorth. https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/the-dream-of-the-rood
(4) I John 4:18
(5) Ezekiel 1:28-3:3
(6) Luke 9:28-36
(7) The Hidden Man of the Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Christian Anthropology, ed. Christopher Veniamin
(8) Ephesians 3:14-19
The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Sheila Vamplin learned early to love God through words, music, and people. Her English degree, piano study, and choral singing somehow led her to Italy and then to Croatia. Landing back in the U.S. after three years of war, she earned a counseling degree. Now a licensed marriage and family therapist with a DMin in spiritual formation, she has concurrently taught piano students and has sung with the Memphis Chamber Choir and the Rhodes Mastersingers Chorale. Her current focus is translating the Italian memoir of beloved friend Tosca Barucci Chesi. As a counselor and spiritual director, Sheila has a heart for artists and those in professional ministry. She loves Gerard Manley Hopkins. With her husband she plans to return to Croatia, anticipating more surprises and trusting that the Holy Ghost will continue brooding over the bent world, even and perhaps especially there.