The fearful piety and "Nada – nada – nada"

of St John of the Cross

[1] Psalm 111:10

[2] The Orthodox metaphor of spiritual progress from a slave to a servant to son/ daughter of God.


[3] It is not the universal rule; which kind of piety a person embraces very much depends how they discovered Christ first and which kind of piety is encouraged in their particular church.

[4] Many may find the case and the spiritual outcomes extreme. Even if it was so the ultimate relationship with God, as it was stated before, tends to bring every feature of a person’s psyche to its extreme and cause a spiritual crisis so the case is still relevant.

[5] 1 John 4:8


[6] Mathew 7: 16-20.

[7] “Nothing – nothing – nothing”, the sum of St John’s  doctrine of raising to God through the “the dark night of the soul” during which a soul is being purged by God from all without and all within thus making the soul able to receive God in the most fully and in the most direct way.

[8] One may notice the loop “stripping oneself off everything for God” – “embracing the most feared thing” “stripping oneself off everything for God” etc. St John stated that the path of spiritual progress is a spiral; the same points are revisited on a different level.


'Christ as Sacrament', icon


O Lord, my God, who will seek you with simple and pure love, and not find that you are all one can desire, for you show yourself first and go out to meet those who seek you?

(St John of the Cross)




There is a certain kind of piety which, the more reverence its adepts try to show to God the more offensive it is to Him. This is the “fearful piety”, i.e. the piety that derives entirely from fear.


“Fearful piety” is certainly not the holy fear of God glorified as “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”[1]. Biblical fear is all about God and knowledge of God and is focused on God; the “fearful piety” is entirely self-focused although it uses the word “God” not less frequently than the Psalmist.


It is the Christian understanding that the biblical holy fear of God means the fear of a believer to upset the loved one (not fear of the loved ones’ retribution). God is defined as the Beloved in the Scriptures therefore a believer is supposed to be afraid to commit a sin which will upset (or even hurt) God and also pollute the believer’s soul; the latter would prevents the sinner from seeing his Beloved. It is noteworthy that, just like a person in love when separated from the object of his passion thinks only about her, a sinner who has lost access to God does not so much think about himself but focuses on God and on the pain of his inability to see his Beloved. He does not want anything purely for himself. He only wants to see God and to know Him. This kind of holy ideal, the passionate and selfless relationship between the soul and God is very vividly described in the Psalms and ‘Song of Songs’.


In comparison, the “fearful piety” is always self-centered at its core. It may not appear to be so, on the surface. Many years are often spent in the attempts to get around a strange invisible wall between God and the believer until the latter realizes that the wall is within himself, self-created the so called “fearful piety”. Far from being helpful to a believer on his way to God, it has served as an instrument for the maintenance of his security in faith, an apparatus which provided him with an artificial and (highly offensive to God) an image of God. This discourse has gone too far and too fast however, straight to the possible spiritual crisis carried within fearful piety. First the concept of “the fearful piety” and its likely victims must be defined. But, before it is done, I must outline the distinction between the natural fear of a new convert and the cultivated fearful piety of an “advanced” Orthodox.


That the selfless love of God described in Psalms is not so common in the beginning of the path of spiritual life is well-known and expected. Indeed, many begin from the stage of so-called “slaves”[2] whose piety is largely driven by the fear of possible consequences of their misdeeds[3]. With time they rise slowly, by the grace of God who reveals to them His true nature that is Love, to the stage of the adopted child of God. It is important to remember that that first stage is not pointless or fruitless because it teaches the new convert self-discipline and other valuable things. However, it is equally important to remember that, although the Orthodox soberly admits the inevitability of the first “fearful” state in the life of a Christian it is considered to be the lowest and necessary to outlive. Therefore I am writing here not about the “fearful piety” as a passing stage on the path to God but only about the “fearful piety” which becomes the permanent stage when being a child of God is no longer desired but being a slave is the highest ideal.


Here I neither accuse nor mock, Church or particular individuals. I am speaking only about the painful and damaging tendency that becomes prominent when the circumstances are right. This tendency does not manifest itself exclusively in either private spiritual life or in the wider Church but can be observed in all areas of human activities because its roots are not in the realm of faith but in the human psyche. The relationship with God, being the ultimate relationship, brings this tendency to its ultimate ugliness. I add “thank God for that” because only the extreme misery can make one ask for healing.


For the sake of clarity I will construct an abstract case[4]. Let us imagine a person who came from an ordinarily abusive family, i.e. one of his parents was an emotionally manipulative or his sibling bullied him or something similar occurred that systematically violated the person’s dignity (which is an image of God). Or he lost a parent in a tender age and there was not enough love in his life to counteract the loss. Whatever it was, a person carries a certain quite common trauma within himself which affects his relationships with others making them continually difficult. A person may be perpetually anxious because he is afraid to make a slightest mistake and to be punished as a consequence, just like his father would beat him up for a tiny misdeed when he was very young, or he is unable to trust anyone or allow himself to be loved because he learnt that trust inevitably ends up with a trick and that love means engulfment and suffocation. The variations are endless just like circumstances and psyches and this is why the wounding of the psyche is so difficult to recognize, especially by the person herself. One tendency is universal though: the person perceives the present through the pain of his past; thus the present is distorted including the best possible things.


If such an individual comes to the faith and especially if he comes to the Church without personal experience he will inevitably attempt to relate to God in the way he used to relate to others. He will treat God with suspicion, unable to trust and love Him and also unable to accept God’s love for him out of the unconscious fear of the hook attached to such a love. The more perfect is the perceived love bigger is the imagined hook. The fear of the bad outcome, that is a product of the believer’s pain coming from his past, will be standing between him and God. There is also another problem here, peculiar for Christians, namely the Person of Jesus Christ. Being perfect Man and God He is neither “another person” with their limitations nor an abstract far-away deity. Being God He gives Himself to a believer and demands the believer himself (as much as one can, it is the intention that counts). Most frighteningly, being Man he demands a very personal response. It is impossible to hide from Him behind many prayers, many fasts or anything else “good” because what He demands is being truthful – not “bad” or “good” but truthful to Him and to oneself. This is the ultimate relationship and this is why it is so frightening and why the damaged psyche is unable to withstand it – the personality of Christ and His ways are the absolute antithesis to the ways the wounded believer is used to. The ultimate Love leaves such a person cold or is perceived as an intellectual abstraction that does not stir his heart because the believer is unable to recognize it emotionally. He may know the theological basis of the Atonement but remains strangely numb to the suffering of the Man. This may explain why some Orthodox are unable to relate to Christ as Person, especially to His humanity and prefer to think of God the Father instead. The perceived lack of humanity in God the Father is somewhat less demanding, more comforting and, most importantly, allows for keeping a safe distance. In case with Christ the believer is unable to face the multiplied pain of his inability to trust, to love, to receive so he steps back, being unaware of the reason behind this.


But even this is not all. Oh, if only such a person could be left like this in his pain and loneliness so eventually he would realize that perhaps something is not right with him and cry to God for help! Unfortunately, the “fearful piety” readily offered to a neophyte as an ideal by similar to him but “advanced” Orthodox does not help him to see his inner wall but makes it even thicker because it backs it up with a solid pious (albeit theologically wrong) basis.


Here are some random features of such “fearful piety”. An overwhelming fear to do something wrong of secondary importance while being in the church:  “incorrectly” place a candle, to bow at the incorrect time, to find oneself standing on the priest’s way, etc. Reading the prayers always strictly in accordance with the Order outlined in the Prayer Book, suppressing the desire to speak from one’s heart out of fear that “I may say something wrong”. Fear to be angry with God or to argue with Him because “Who am I to argue? – Even if the prophets did who am I?” Fear to have own opinion “because I may fall into the sin of pride” and because “I may make a costly mistake” or even because “It is un-Orthodox”. Rejection of any spiritual/ mystical experience, any slightest movement in one’s heart because “Who am I to feel it?” This one may take particularly sophisticated form of self-checkmate. “I experienced Jesus Christ very personally while praying and looking at His icon – it is the evil temptation, I read demons play such tricks to unworthy people like I am” or “Oh, I experienced something like a slight warmth in my heart while doing the Jesus prayer – no, I am nothing, it is from evil, a fake to make me boast”. Consequentially, the people who do not follow this custom but dare to accept what they experience are labeled as “proud” or even “possessed”. Good spiritual fruits among such people are treated with suspicion or denied.


In this kind of spiritual life the fear of making a mistake defines its every aspect or is entangled with its every aspect. Do not get me wrong, as an Orthodox I know how important is the cautious and careful examination of what one may encounter during the prayer or at other times. The reality of the sin of pride that is the root of all sins is also ever-present. One may think however that, if he evaluates his experience or his line of thinking using the Scripture, the Orthodox Church Tradition, and his own sense he may make up his mind especially if he prays to God to guide him, confesses his thoughts regularly and watches himself for the danger of the sin of pride? No, the “fearful piety” is unbeatable: “who you are to understand the Scriptures correctly”, “who you are to use the Tradition otherwise than repeating the quotes from the Church Fathers”, “your confessor may be deluded or even evil-inspired”, “it is not Our Lord who guides you – because who are you to be guided by Him – but the demons”. It is not an exaggeration by the way, it is a quite common mainstream thinking inspired by the zealous reading of the ascetic books of extreme severity not balanced by the (at least) equally zealous reading of the Gospels and Church Fathers like St Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrios, St Makarios, St Dionysios, St Maximos, and others who speak of God as Love Who desires to be loved (“Blasphemy! – How may God wish to be loved by us, dirty sinners! – Let Him be loved by the authors of those books, the saints.”).


So the psychologically bruised person (like many of us) comes to the Church and often finds there the theological justification of the unwholesome features of his psyche. You do not trust anyone – that’s right, you cannot trust even yourself now because you are rotten, and God does not speak to the sinners so anything that may appear to be a gift from God is from the evil. The lack of trust is a virtue because if you trust you may make a mistake and God will punish you (however, you can trust the vague notion of the “Fathers” somehow always given to you without a reference; this depersonalization is to be addressed later).

If you are hesitant to make your own conclusion (even if you strongly feel it) about certain lines in the Scripture than you are right, who are you to think? – Do you want to fall into the sin of pride and be condemned by God?

If you had a misfortune to think that God mysteriously spoke to you then you are in grave danger, don’t you know that, since you are not a saint, it is most likely to be demonic? The abundant and nerve-wrecking examples of various Orthodox monks who bowed to Satan thinking it was Christ whom they saw in a vision and consequentially ran mad, or sick Catholics with stigmata preaching to the birds as a fruit of their “communication” with God are readily given.


Hence the neophyte has no other way but to conform to the “fearful piety” which prescribes every thought and every move. His own psyche makes this easy for him. The neophyte sticks to the security of the Law and also embraces the extreme asceticism, straining himself with severe fasting and dry prayer. The books he reads are typically also extreme and very severe in their approach. (It is rather ironical that such severity makes a neophyte a very severe judge, of oneself and of others; this state is far from the virtue of humility the neophyte aspires to although it may look deceptively similar.) First this new way of life feels good because it justifies all his faults and provides the security which makes the stage of the “fearful piety” so attractive, seducing many into staying with it permanently. In some time, however, comes the dryness and petrifaction of the spirit which only the pain within the soul deprived of the real spiritual food and God’s grace, together, can overcome.


God’s task to reveal Himself to such a person is mighty indeed because the person effectively puts not only himself in a checkmate situation but also God. If God literally reveals Himself to him in a vision then he will deny it out of a fear of making a mistake or, being tempted to accept what was given to him (that is, that he experienced a cool water poured onto his inner desert) he will exhaust himself with doubts, run away, or even temporarily run mad thus fulfilling that what was told to him, that every vision revealed to the people like him is from devil.


If God perseveres and manages to inflame one’s heart with love for Him then all what is twisted in one’s psyche will come into play and all the pious pseudo-truths will ring in a persons’ ears non-stop preventing him from hearing the quite voice of God. He may make one step towards God and yet immediately step back, out of a fear to make a fatal mistake and to be punished and ultimately die on the spot. Ironically, God, as He is experienced by such a person, is a punishing deity which has nothing to do with the God of the Scriptures, even with the God of the Old Testament angry with His people. Usually this fact entirely escapes the person’s grasp because he is too scared to think. And so the ultimate battle for the weak and fearful heart begins, with God and all that is good in the soul (i.e. what is preserved of the Christ’s image within it) on one side and the abused, twisted psyche and the evil forces on the other. It is fortunate if at that point one finds the courage to begin thinking and comparing the god of the “fearful piety” with Jesus Christ, from the Scriptures and from his own experience. It may transpire that the former is the extreme of his father/mother brother/sister any other abuser from the past – the god of the minuscule letters, tiny dry rules, the god of the fear and punishment, scrutinizing every tiny move and thought, one who must not be trusted, who withdraws his gifts immediately after perceiving the slightest disobedience or a hint of failure, testing and retesting those who believe in him obsessively with a sadistic pleasure, the emotional manipulator habitually putting his worshipers in a checkmate situation, demanding that the person loves only him but never others, meaning no other people or anything else, the god of petrified forms, the enemy of freedom and life, very much like death or Satan actually. And the latter – Jesus Christ our Lord who does not care about the minuscule letters but cares about the human heart, by His very nature unable to trick or manipulate, who does not punish, who is the enemy of a fear of any kind (and whose apostle wrote “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”[5]) and whose very presence drives away any fear. The later is confirmed by everyone who ever encountered Him.


Christ our Lord who is Love Himself, who reduced Himself on the cross so that the most fearful individual would be able to love Him, who is reducing Himself in the most extreme kenosis so that anyone (yes, the dirtiest and most sinful person) could approach Him, who first gave Himself to everyone completely, meaning without holding anything back. And how are we afraid of this God who is Truth, Path, and Life? Very simply – because the practitioner of the “fearful piety” thinks about himself i.e. he is afraid to do something wrong and get punished and he desperately wants to buy his security by any means. He has not the primitive fear of God which is useful for the beginner in faith; there is something more in it than just a simple fear of being “cast away into hell”, probably because it is grossly aided by a much suffered psyche which gives it a certain pathological twist of absurdity. The beginner may think “I must watch out not to sin because I may end up in hell”, the fearful worshiper thinks “whatever I do I am doomed unless – maybe – I stick to what I am told by those who know – and yet maybe I am doomed anyway – yes, I am doomed”. Such a psyche does not examine the reality but squeezes the reality into the given rules, otherwise it would be saved at least by the notion “By their fruit you will recognize them”[6] – indeed, if the outcome of “something” is humility and love how can that “something” be judged to be evil? But one can, making God His caricature.


It is hard not to notice that if such god was true its very existence would make unnecessary and absurd the Sacrifice and Atonement. This brings us back to the unfortunate inability of the “fearfully pious” to relate to the humanity of Jesus Christ and to their preference to contemplate Him only as the Judge. This is a good example how the twisted psyche paves the way to the twisted theology and then propagates it corrupting others. The implications of such theology are extremely heavy: by the self-centered fear of God created by swapping Jesus Christ with the image the abuser from our past whoever they may be, we rob from ourselves any possibility of salvation and deification. It is impossible for the person who cannot allow himself to be loved to accept Christ’s  Sacrifice. It is equally impossible to accept the gift of deification from God if one does not trust God completely, just like Christ trusts us completely and if one is unable to recognize in himself even the slightest hint of the image of God. If it is so than perhaps one can attempt to relate to the crucified Christ, contemplating, out of his own painful experience, God’s pain and abandonment? Unfortunately, the words like “vulnerable, hurt, abandoned” are often considered by the fearfully pious to be unacceptable in being applied to God “because God is almighty” therefore even the slightest possibility to relate to Christ through His (and our) own vulnerability, hurt, and abandonment is denied out of fear. This is the true dead end, the hell created by people but not by God and nothing can be done about it until the fearful pious spends all his pious supplies and begins suffocating and cries to God. But then what?


I believe that in a case of the person who has cut himself from God by preconceptions the very Orthodox teaching of the Catholic St John of the Cross may help, his “Nada – nada – nada”[7]. St John maintains that to experience God one must first be stripped from everything else he possesses and “embrace the most feared thing”. I understand “everything” as not just material attachments but also everything that separates us from God including the comforting ideas of Him one has got used to. It may be argued that there may be correct and worthy ideas among those habitual and comforting thoughts. Very possibly, but if they do not help one to come to God then two things are likely: they are either wrong or the person embraces them only intellectually. There is a difference between stating coldly “Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for all humanity” (here is the impersonal thinking similar to the abstract “Fathers said”) and feeling the horror of the thought “He agreed to be crucified for me”. Because, there is not much implication for me personally in the first notion – I may pass unnoticed together with “all humanity” – but if He did it for me it is clear that He loves me and desires my love or, if I am unable to love, then my any personal response. That very personal, honest, and passionate relationship with God Incarnate is what Christianity is all about. And here comes the second notion of St John, “the necessity to embrace the most feared things” that is to see my own psyche with all its twists and rot. Without such self-honesty the personal relationship with God is impossible. To give an example, if one habitually denies the pain and shame of his past how he can feel the pain of Christ or even allow Christ to reveal His pain (and Sacrifice, and Atonement, and Love) to him?


“Embracing the most feared thing” brings us back to the notion of “stripping oneself from everything for the sake of knowing God”[8]. It quickly become obvious that anything incompatible with Christ must be given up or cut off including everything that distorts His image in ones psyche. Such self-sacrifice is impossible for a human being but possible for God if the human being attempts to trust Him. But how is it possible even to begin to trust God if one is full of mistrust? – Only via “embracing the most feared thing”, namely standing before crucified Jesus Christ without pretense and simply looking at Him. We must approach Jesus Christ on the cross because this is the only way to begin to contemplate His humanity and see ourselves reflected in His humanity. What a horror sight! – Our psyche is either unable to recognize His Love (this may explain why so many hate Him) or able but impotent to allow ourselves to be drawn into it, let alone to allow Him to pour it in into our twisted souls. Worse even, it is impossible to predict what is going to happen next and this is the pinnacle of horror.


If, despite the fear, we wish to be with Christ and manage (very much by His grace) to make a weak cry “I want to be Yours, save me from myself”, everything that is not His image in ourselves begins burning away and falling apart because it is incompatible with Him, very painfully and very slowly. This is what St John meant by his “nada – nada – nada” – rejoicing in the pain of being nothing, being purified through the extreme of real self-denial (i.e. not out of some imaginary piety but out of the impossibility to go on like before, out of thirst for the love of God suddenly granted by Him), even to the state when nothing seems to be left. Being released from all that was false and twisted we may start recognizing our own potential full humanity in Christ and feel its pecking in us through the ashes. This in turn can start bringing us in touch with our potential divinity which is the ultimate wish of God for all of us, not the fear and eternal bending of a false fearful piety which is nothing more than the self-love of a slave.



The icon 'Christ as Sacrament' above is painted by the author.

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