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My mom was -- and is -- a pretty consistent disciplinarian. Because she lives with us, my kids have heard a lot of the same phrases she used to say when she was raising me. “Finish what you start.” “Put things away as you go along.” “When you get up in the morning and your feet hit the floor, turn around and make your bed.” Some of what she repeats has fallen on less than listening ears. But her simple synopsis of what it takes to be a decent human being will probably stick with our children the way it has with me. “Two things,” she used to say as she held up two fingers. “Only two things. I want to you be nice, and hardworking.” “Nice” and “hardworking” sometimes switched order, but they were always the bottom line. All the rest, at least in her view, would probably follow if you possessed those two qualities.
There was never a doubt in my mind about what my mother meant by “hardworking.” She provided a compelling, if daunting, example. I have never and will never encounter anyone who works harder than she does; neither will my children, and they didn’t see her at 35 or 40. Next to my mom, everyone else (including me) is lazy.
But the word “nice” has lost its meaning. When she said it to me all those years ago, “nice” encompassed a host of social and personal virtues. “Nice” people approached others with friendliness, respect, adherence to common decency, manners, and the generally accepted Christian moral code. It meant treating people the way you would want to be treated, and doing right simply because you knew it was right. It took a certain amount of social refinement to be considered “nice.” But whatever your background or class or culture, there was one thing on which everything else rested: keeping your word.
Business used to be conducted purely on a word and a handshake. By and large, people gave their word and expected to be held accountable to it. Usually, they held themselves accountable. When I was a child, even the other kids wanted to be known as “good to their word.”
The world just isn’t that way anymore. Whether it’s Jon and Kate Plus 8 or Father Alberto Cutie, fewer and fewer of us are doing what we said we would. Let’s face it plainly, no matter how amicable a divorce is, divorce is bad for children. Let’s admit it, no matter how difficult a vow may be to keep, those who abandon one are unlikely to fulfill another. The “crooked houses” that the Gosselin children were meant to play in turned out to be less “crooked” than the one they lived in. In all likelihood, Father Cutie may well discover that the grass isn’t any greener on the marital side of the fence. Fidelity is the foundation of married love, just as it is the basis for priestly vows. Married, single, celibate -- it really doesn’t matter. We all struggle to live the promises we make to ourselves, to one another, and to God.
Our culture no longer seems to place much value on fidelity. After decades of moral relativism and the primacy of “feelings,” we’ve become a society less trusting and less trustworthy. In fact, so few of us now know what it is to live by our word, that many of us have stopped giving our word at all. Under the guise of “keeping your options open,” a lot of young adults avoid committing themselves and their lives to anything that requires faithfulness. The number of couples hasn’t changed, but the number of marriages is declining. Priestly and religious vocations are down, I suspect for similar reasons. There seems to be an emerging societal fear of commitment and decision, a fear of having not only to live with, but to live out, the choices we make.
In the Gospels Jesus asks a rather piercing rhetorical question: “When the Son of Man returns, will He find any faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8) Allow me to suggest that faith is found where faithfulness exists. When we live unfaithfully, we are less likely to be people of faith. When we ourselves cannot be trusted, we will find it harder or less desirable to trust God. When we do not give our word or keep it, how can we build a relationship with Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh who gave and gives himself to us?
God made us in his image and calls us to his likeness. We are designed to be like him, and he is forever faithful. God does not flirt with us, or make promises he doesn’t keep. And while we cannot add anything to God, the promises he has kept to us cost him death on a cross. In the end, a promise is only as valuable as what we are willing to give in order to keep it. If we are looking for faith, we will find it stirred up in our hearts by the faithfulness of God.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.