“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

Published on 17 May 2017

To be honest, I’m not generally the best with commandments, either at giving them or keeping them. But two experiences have really changed my understanding of what they are.

The first was a time in my life before I became a priest when I was sent by my Jesuit superiors to be a teacher. I was not good at it and I did not enjoy it. My big problem was that I just could not keep order in class. One word from me and the children did whatever they wanted to do. I tried everything I could - I tried being nice to them - didn’t work. I tried being nasty to them. - didn’t work. I tried everything in between. None of it worked. In despair, I brought my problem to another teacher who never seemed to have any trouble in her class. I asked her how she did it. She simply said: “Well I love them and they love me. And because they love me, they trust me and they do what I ask them to do because they know that I wouldn’t ask them to do something that wasn’t right.” And then she just looked at me as if this was obvious and that creating that sort of trust was just the easiest thing in the world.

I found that deeply inspiring, but not immediately helpful. But I think that is exactly what Jesus means when he says: “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” If you really love me then you will trust me that what I ask of you is for your own good and then you will do it not because you have to; not because you’ll get in trouble if you don’t; but because you want to; because you know it is what is good for all of us. It is by living in this way that we will become the best that we can be, both for ourselves and for those who depend upon us.

The second was more recently. When I worked with the Wapisana tribe - an Amerindian community in the Amazon, we once had a meeting with some of the lay church leaders about how we could make the Sunday service reflect more closely their particular Amerindian culture.

I should explain: the Rupununi is a parish the size of Wales – about 25,000 square miles. And in that parish, there are about 15,000 Catholics spread over 53 small villages, each with their own little church and their own lay Church leader.  Obviously, with three priests spread over 53 communities hundreds of miles apart, a priest can only visit them at most once a month. So it is really important for the people that when they come together on a Sunday morning, they really feel that God is present among them. So we really wanted to work with the lay leaders on making the Sunday prayer services really express the life and presence of God within the community.

So one of the first questions that came up was how to perform a welcoming ceremony at the start. What would – within that particular culture and that particular context - be a meaningful expression of God’s welcome to His People?

So, to keep it local and relevant, we asked them: “What does the Touchau - the village chief - say when visitors from another village come to see him.”

And they thought about that for a little while. And the answer came back: “He says: ‘Kaimen’ - a word that means ‘Hello’.”

And we asked: “But, doesn’t he say anything else?”

And they talked for a little while among themselves and the answer came back: “No, not really. He just says ‘Kaimen’ - ‘Hello’.”

But we felt we needed something more to start a Sunday service with than just “hello”. So we talked a bit more and we got nowhere.

Eventually - at long last - one of my brother priests asked the right question: “When visitors come from another village, what does the Touchau do?”

They said: “Oh well! He gives them water to wash, and he gets the women to come and massage their feet and then he brings in a big bowl of Casiri to drink.” - that’s the local traditional cassava beer.

And then we had a long and lively discussion of whether or not it was a good idea to start the Sunday service by having a foot massage and sharing around a large bowl of cassava beer. And in the end we decided it probably wasn’t. I leave aside the question of whether or not that was the right decision (you’ll not be surprised to hear that I was in the loudly dissenting minority). But that made an important point - the welcome is not in the words. Words are cheap. The welcome is in the action. We welcome Christ not by faith alone - not just by saying that Jesus is Lord. We welcome him by keeping his commandments - by living our lives as he asked of us and by sharing his body and blood as he told us.

Catholic Christianity is – at least on its good days - a faith of action, not of words. We do not remain in Jesus’ love by sitting and doing nothing - not even by prayer and reading the scriptures. Not even by believing in our hearts and confessing with our lips that Jesus is Lord. We remain in his love by living in his commandments. In the gospel, he tells us what they are: they are not many; they are easy to understand; but they are not easy to keep.

  • to love the Lord our God with all our minds and all our soul and all our strength.
  • to love our neighbour as our self.to love one another as He has loved us.
  • to be perfect as God our Father is perfect.
  • and finally, to do this, the Eucharist, in memory of me.

Let us pray that our love may always show more in actions than in words.

Paul O'Reilly SJ