Holy Fear

Not every religious encounter is an experience of unbridled joy, tenderness, and a warm embrace. Some are—and they can be wonderful!—but that’s far from the only type. Quite often, accounts of religious experiences involve some kind of terror or holy fear at the presence of a God, and I’ve had my own share of such experiences.

This post is an attempt to make some degree of sense of my own experiences in devotion over the years, by distinguishing three different types of holy fear that can occur in devotional or theophanic encounters. It’s not meant to be exhaustive: neither in describing these three categories in their entirety, nor in (necessarily) getting at all the possible categories that might be out there.

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Iamblichus on the Discernment of Spirits

In book V, chapter 10 of De Mysteriis, Iamblichus gives us an elegant and straightforward method for distinguishing genuine Gods and Daimones from impostures.

We observe that the Demiurge provides us lower creatures with everything we need for our sustenance. So, why should he fail to do so, for the daimones? If their sustenance were adventitious, dependent on us (such that our neglecting them would somehow harm or disequilibriate them), then they would be inferior to us, and we would be superior to them, which is absurd.

We can conclude that any being which depends upon an offering is an inferior being, and not the God or Daimon to whom sacrifice is properly given.

As Iamblichus himself explains, “Each thing derives its nurture and fulfillment from that to which it owes its generation.”