Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Love, honour and obey

Spending time with my mother at the weekend in a place that both my father and she adored, I was prompted to wondering how it was that that they enjoyed more than fifty years of marriage and were happy.

I thought of their wedding vows: to love, honour and obey.

That they loved each other was and is clear. The sharp contours of my mother's grief since his death, the absenting void, is painful witness to that. But so too was the day, passing through Paddington Station, I saw them by chance (and before they saw me) back from celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their first date in Bruges. They resonated warmth, companionship and each was a blessing to the other.

However, all you need is not love.

Obey is a deeply unfashionable word but its Latin roots mean to hearken, to listen. In the opening words of the Rule of St Benedict it appears as an invitation to a deep listening to one another in God. That they were obedient to one another in this sense was a growing truth not without much trial and error on the way. I often feel that half the world's problems might be resolved if we were not such frankly crap listeners, armed with what we want to say next or lost in distraction, we do anything but hearken to one another.

The secret of their abiding happiness, however, was I think, the middle term of their vow: honour. It is tempting to translate this as 'respect' but that word is too shallow and formal. A bank clerk can respect their customer. Honour is so much deeper.

I think it held through thick and thin, in all the ups and downs of their relationship, even probably when love flirted with hate! They were to each other utterly another person in their own right to whom they owed the courtesy of being honoured even when in the midst of disagreement and in that honouring there was no trace of any seeking to manipulate after their own view. Persuade yes, manoeuvre undoubtedly, scream out loud sometimes but manipulation never. We (as children) almost missed being born because when they married, they had decided not to have children. Both changed their mind but so conscious were they that they did not want to put pressure on the other to prematurely change their conviction, they patiently waited until the mutual change became apparent! Thank God it did!

As their child, I felt this too. Never did I feel that either parent was going to impose their view on how my life should be even when they thought that I was misdirected. Support they offered, advice thankfully sparingly, but mostly they allowed you a space in which to grow and unfurl in which you always sensed you were loved but also honoured too as another person, your own person, gifted into life by them but neither owned by them nor an extension of their aspirations or desires (though undoubtedly I picked up some of these unconsciously). Honour, I think, was their secret and it is a virtue in need of wider cultivation, including in myself.

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