‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’ [John 14:15]
There are so many meanings of the word ‘keep’. In my Collins Dictionary (1979 edition) there are 3 column inches (8cm for the younger generation) of usages of the word, and surprise, surprise, not one fits my own intuitive meaning of the word in this gospel context. I say that because I have broken nearly all of the commandments, and if one includes ‘thought’ as in ‘to sin in thought word and deed’, well!!!! Need I say any more?
Admittedly, I’m preparing my defence for the final judgement, and I’m certainly NOT going to challenge the Lord in a game of semantics, what I am attempting is to engineer a softer landing in case of adversity. A thorough preparation for anything that one attempts in life is a sign of wisdom, and preparing for death comes fairly high on the list of ‘things that need preparation.’ In the opening Gospel quote at the beginning of this piece, I thought of substituting the verb keep with the adjective faithful, but the phrase ‘you will be faithful’ is no less demanding than ‘you will keep!’ In a way, I’m rather glad that Jesus tells us that his Father will give us another Advocate, one who knows exactly who we are and loves us! Phew!
All this ‘you will keep my commandments’ or ‘be faithful to my commandments’ is a bit like marriage vows. I quote:
‘I call upon these persons here present to witness
that I (name) do take thee (so-and-so)
to be my lawful wedded wife,
to have and to hold from this day forward
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish
till death do us part.’
The vows in both instances are demanding, very demanding, and challenging, because the underlying reason for compliance is one of love! Not self-love, but sacrificial love, surrendering oneself to gain something far more desirable. To desire God, to desire ‘the love of ones’ life,’ is not, and should not be painful, it should be exhilarating, invigorating, spiritually elevating. Unconditional love is forgiving. God’s love for us is unconditional, the difficulty with human love is that there may be occasions when forgiveness is beyond ones’ personal capacity to begin the healing process. Selfishness, vanity, envy, jealousy, the urge to control ones’ spouse all conspire to strip away the veneer of sacrificial love and the dignity of a spouse created in God’s image. To wound a spouse or any person with a desire to control their life or to limit their freedom is to wound life, the sanctity of life. In marriage, or any healthy relationship, to love God is to love that person, anything less than that challenges the beauty and love of God, in fact is to deny God.
St Peter sums up the attitude one should adopt in living the Christian vocation. He says: ‘Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, so that those who slander you when you are living a good life in Christ may be proved wrong in the accusations that they bring.’
Such attitudes of courtesy and respect make sense as one develops a greater understanding of human nature. However, when one is a child, the instinct to ‘get what one wants’ creates an obstruction between good manners and ignorance, and the development of ignorance rather than courtesy has caused many a parent sleepless nights. Children learn by being ‘reined in’ by watchful parents, or sometimes as in the story I am about to tell, by members of the public. In an earlier reflection, I mentioned that from the age of seven and a half until the age of twelve, the Irish Christian Brothers who ran St Brendan’s College in Bristol, had the joy of teaching me the three R’s, and perhaps other subjects, which I cannot now remember, the object of the exercise being to give me a rounded education. As a budding academic, the most exciting time of the day was when the bell rang joyfully signalling time to go home.
In those days, Bristol was a child’s playground. As the seventh most bombed city in the country, there was no-way a hooligan child could make it any worse, after all, no sane person would accuse a child of wrecking a bomb site. There were a number of routes which one could take from school to the City Centre which gave one the opportunity of assisting the war effort by helping to demolish dangerously unstable walls. As children, we were decades ahead of the Health and Safety culture now pervading our modern society.
Quite naturally, one needed sustenance to perform the manual task of demolition, and providentially there was a cake shop in Park Row, which adjoined the top of Park Street, and was a must-stop for victuals. One could buy two crusty rolls for a penny, or if the rolls had run out, two crumpets. By that time in the afternoon, the crumpets were so rubbery, they were fit only for incineration under the grill and edible only if they were smothered with a thick coating of butter. In reality, it was rolls or nothing!
After half and hour or so of playing among the crumbling buildings and throwing the odd brick at the Grammar School boys [it was all very ecumenical] it was time to get the bus home. On the way we passed the Colston Hall, Bristol’s answer to the Albert Hall in London or the Free Trade Hall in Manchester: we reached the centre and headed for our various bus stops. However, there was a snag! …….. a lack of money for the bus fare! Why? because it had been spent on crusty rolls. The distance between the centre and home was a touch more than three miles, and after a busy day at school there was not a cat-in-hells chance of me walking that distance, added to which I would arrive home more than an hour late, and I’d have to think of an excuse. The simple answer was, of course, to ask a nice-looking lady if she could spare a penny, because I had lost my bus fare!
As usual it worked a treat, and I stood in the queue along with the other passengers quite content with the world. Then to my horror, the nice lady came up to me and said at the top of her voice: ‘I know who you are! Give me back my money! You’re not getting anything from me! ……………… Well! ….. I was dismayed to say the least, and without saying a word, handed her back her penny. The bus came; the passengers with money for the fare embarked, and the bus left leaving me alone at the stop. It would have been of little purpose to ask another passenger for the fare from the same queue, as I’m sure the now ‘not-so-nice lady’ would have blackened my name.
I waited for the next bus, and during that time I sought help from another nice lady who really was nice, and I arrived home, innocent as a lamb and all was well.
What had I learnt from this minor incident? Well, for a start, never lose one’s dignity. In times of rejection always be courteous, after all doesn’t it say somewhere in scripture ‘Wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town, wipe the dust from your feet’ and in Acts 13:51 it says ‘They [Paul and Barnabas] simply shook the dust off their feet against them, and came to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit’. I have to admit that although I was courteous throughout this distressing encounter, my respect for grown-ups diminished a bit, but after all I was still a child!