I have a six year old son who tells me a gazillion times a day how much he loves me. And he means it. He is a child who feels things deeply, and wears his heart on his sleeve, and emotions for him are often played out in the world of the senses: “Here’s a strawberry for you mummy – I thought of you as I picked it so it’s got my love in it – eat it mummy and taste the love…” Not surprisingly, Daniel loves the tactile prayers that we do in messy church, using cushions, blankets, soft things… the love of God can be felt in these, and is very real to him.
So, when he forgets to say please and thank you to me, and does what most six year olds do, which is to treat their mother like an omnipresent servant, I try and explain to him the loving someone also means treating them with respect, and that he can show me he loves me, as well as telling me, by treating me less like a slave and more like a fellow human being.
I am fairly confident that I’m not alone, as a mother, in this experience. And yes, the please and thank you habits are important. And yes, treating others with respect is an important manifestation of our awareness that they are in fact human beings, let alone human beings for whom we have significant feelings.
But I’d be sorry for my son’s expressions of love to be reduced to politeness. And I’d hate his declarations of undying love for me to become mere rote repetitions without the intensity of feeling behind them.
‘I love you’ is just three short words but it’s what they look like in real life that matters. I often get wedding couples to reflect on this. I show them the declarations and the vows and ask them,’what do these words look like in your life? And how has the way that these words look in real life chanced over the course of your time as a couple? And in particular, what does ‘cherishing’ look like in your lives?
Cherishing must be the part of the marriage vows that’s easiest to let slip; life gets in the way, busyness creeps in, there is no time and energy for cherishing any more, except perhaps for birthdays, anniversaries and Valentine’s day… But cherishing can be not only the finishing touch of love lived out, it can also be part of the foundation of that love lived out.
If C S Lewis was right that we can become more generous by giving more, then we can probably become more loving by consciously cherishing those around us, particularly those who have been given to us to love.
So, do I wish that my son always remembered to say please and thank you? Of course I do. I also wish I always remembered, too! But I can also look at all the little ways that his love for me is expressed through small acts of cherishing that assure me that love isn’t just a word to him. As long as love is truly lived out in his life, and practiced every day it never will be just a word, for either of us.