The Science of Fear and the Hesychastic Remedy

In a world without dangers threatening emotional and physical pain, there would be no need for fear. But we don’t live in such a world. There’s an old saying in aviation: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Neurologically speaking, fear involves the memory of a dangerous occurrence (brought to the consciousness through the CHR neurons of the hypothalamus), information from the senses (feeding into the basolateral amygdala) that are consistent with that memory and the urge to flee (activated by the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and leading to the secretion of the stress-hormone cortisol). In real dangers, this neural circuit can literally be a lifesaver, but it comes at a cost and was never meant to be a continuous natural state. High levels of cortisol associated with living in a state of fear or anxiety increase blood-pressure and gastric acid production in the stomach, ages the immune system, and damages the memory (hippocampus) and the ability to learn. We were not created to be fearful.  Yet, fear has become the defining “default setting” for human beings in our contemporary age.  Fear begets war, jealousy, rage, lust, anger, competition, and every other human ailment.  Fear even besets those who are attempting to live a spiritual life.

However, the truly Good Physician continually admonishes us in the Gospel with His calming, holy voice: “Be not afraid.”  Fear is antithetical to the Good News of the Gospel for “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.”  Fear is fomented in the intellect when we choose to let ourselves focus on past dangers and future threats, rather than meditating on past blessings and future promises. In the Gospel, the Lord Christ continually reminds His disciples that fears about worldly cares have no place in the life of His followers. “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.”

If the intellect and discursive rationality are the purview of the selective memories of the past and projected images of the future, the nous is the purview of the present.  Fear keeps us bound and enslaved to temporal realities over which we have absolutely no control.  We can’t change the past and we can’t control the future.  What we have is the present moment.  And even if events trigger a fear response, faith can always calm a stormy sea.

christcalmsthestormThis is where the Jesus Prayer becomes truly important and instructive for us.  In the context of the Jesus Prayer, we ask mercy for what we have been and done in the past and place our trust in Him who knows our future, all the while remaining in the present moment.  “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner.”  I trust in the Lord’s mercy and goodness for “He is a God that lovest mankind” and if I cling to Him that same love and mercy will sustain me in the future-no matter what that future may entail.  The Lord desires my salvation, not my destruction.  Let us turn to the Myrrh-bearing women, especially Saint Mary Magdalene for a moment. Mary arrives at the tomb weeping and mourning.  She is greeted with the words “He is not here”.  At that moment, the resurrected Lord calls her by name “Mary” and she recognizes Him.

So too, in our own lives, Jesus is not to be found in death (fear).  “He is not here.”  He has overcome death and cast out all fear, trampling down death by death.  Whatever we fear, whomever we fear has been conquered by the glory of the Cross and Resurrection.  If we have fear ever dwelling in our hearts, we are harming our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Neuroscience, psychiatry, and the Gospel agree on this point. Such fear is certainly not of God.  Fear is the great lie that our opponent the devil sows in our heart to prevent us from communion with the God who loves us.  Fear keeps us chained to illusory and deceptive thoughts that alienate us from God and one another.  Yet, that chain has been broken, Satan has been conquered, fear has been overcome.  We need only recognize this and be glad in Him who has made us a new creation. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. Glory to Thee, O God, glory to Thee! Amen.

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