Sunday, 30 August 2015

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time - read Mark 7: 1-8, 14, 15, 21-23

This people honoureth Me with their lips,
but their heart is far from Me.
And in vain do they worship Me,
teaching doctrines and precepts of men.
There once lived a grand old dowager of a woman, rich both in years and in purse and bearing both lightly, with grace.  She had never been blessed with children and had counted more winters as a widow than she had summers as a wife, but she had three nieces, and these were her pride and joy, the consolation of her long years and lengthening shadows.

The eldest niece was a chronic perfectionist who, having found herself possessed of great competence, had fallen into the trap of taking too many things too seriously.  This left her with a very nervous disposition and a state of perpetual unease.  Those who come to believe that the world cannot function properly without them will never dare to let it go, even for a moment.

She had never really made time to get to know her aunt, and consequently had no real affection for her.  Nevertheless, she felt a nagging, vague sense of guilt about her aged relation and as a solemn but joyless duty she spent an hour drinking tea with her every Sunday afternoon.  The conversation was perfunctory at best, punctuated with long, awkward silences, and the eldest niece usually left - always at precisely the stroke of three o'clock - feeling inexplicably more guilty than before she came.

The aunt was always saddened by her eldest niece's glum, dutiful demeanour, and always tried to lighten the mood with a joke or two, but to no avail.  Nevertheless, she loved her niece and persevered in trying to ease her self-imposed burdens in any way she could.

The second niece was glamorous and worldly.  Hers was a fast paced life, dashing from fad to fashion, chasing the bright lights and the high life.  She never settled down, finding a new boyfriend every other week, each with a sleeker car and a higher salary than the last.

This young lady never even really took the time to get to know herself, let alone anyone else, and although she never noticed and would have insisted on the contrary, she never really appreciated her own worth, or grew to love herself, and so was never really capable of loving another.  She certainly had no interest in her elderly relative, but she did have a keen interest in her inheritance, for which reason she would visit every Tuesday for half an hour, sitting restlessly on the edge of a chair facing the clock, asking the sorts of questions she supposed a concerned niece would ask, but not really listening to the answers.

The aunt felt especially sorry for the second niece, recognising the emptiness she was desperate to escape.  She tried always to make her home a place of warmth, welcome and stability for those weekly half hours, in the hope of providing a secure environment for the young woman to face herself and find peace.  That was all she could do.

The youngest niece was quite different.  She lived a perfectly ordinary sort of life with all of the usual cares and difficulties, and she had never sought anything more.  She bore her duties with humour and a healthy detachment, doing her best and expecting no more from herself.

She loved her aunt.  From her earliest days she had looked up at this stately old lady with particular fondness, and used to sit on her knee for hours, listening to her stories and stealing the occasional toffee from her handbag - which, of course, had been placed there for that very purpose.  The responsibilities of adulthood meant that she could now only visit for an hour or two each week, but she always looked forward to those brief chances to sit and talk and laugh with her wise old auntie.  Busy though she was, she usually found a few minutes here and there through the week to call her on the phone, and she loved to hear the smile in the old lady's voice.

The time came, as it always must, for the aunt to near her final hour.  Each of the nieces received the call from the hospital, and each went in to see her in turn.

The first came out having performed her duty to the letter, and yet her sense of guilt - still unnamed - had not left her.  It never would.

The second came and went quickly, not knowing what to say or how to feel.  She was left empty and unsatisfied by this glimpse of mortality, and by everything she couldn't bring herself to feel for her aunt or anyone else - and so she was to remain.

The third stayed until her aunt drew her final breath.  She was tearful, of course, but smiling in spite of it.  That smile was to remain with her for the rest of her life, even when her face did not share it with the world, for she had known real love, love that was as ordinary and unshakable as the very mountains and more, because one day not one stone will remain on another, and all silly human self-importance and fear and greed will pass away, but love - and only love - will endure forever.

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