I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another (John 13:34).
Even though I am a Catholic missioner living halfway around the world, I often feel inadequate as a Catholic. I left the church as a child and returned as an elder. I am far from an expert on liturgy, and I often find scripture intimidating.
I am sure there is someone in the Maryknoll family who can write an elegant exegesis (I learned that word in Maryknoll!) about the king having problems with his slaves described in today’s reading from Matthew (18:21-35) — but that one is not me.
Late on my deadline, I am anxious. I go to my anxiety-reducing place: early to Mass with my rosary, in my favorite seat by the window, overlooking the kitchen garden of the pastoral center and a huge tree with yellow flowers.
Like almost everywhere in Kenya, the view includes a shipping container, now a shed. I gaze at its roof. Amid the leaves is a lumpy gray shape that looks like a mop head.
As I pray my mantra to Mary, a line reaches out to me from the Gospel Acclamation, the shortest reading, a verse from John: “I give you a new commandment, says the Lord; love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).
Why, I wonder, does that line carry so much more power for me than its close cousin, quoted liberally, from Leviticus to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and beyond? Why do I understand it better than “Love your neighbor as you love yourself”?
I think that is because, as the Kenyans would say, I am a “drunkard.” The word “alcoholic” is rare here. The phrase “recovering alcoholic” is even rarer. But that is what I am.
When I first got sober, I did not love myself much at all. They say in my program, Alcoholics Anonymous, that an alcoholic is an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. That was me. Arrogance gaily foregrounded, but on the inside, clarity that I was “less than.” That I was not, in fact, worth loving.
My self-esteem was nonexistent, probably because I was not doing much that was esteem-worthy. My life centered around myself, my habits, and the circle of people and substances that kept the cycle going. If you were a non-drinking neighbor expecting me to love you — well, good luck with that. I might do little pro forma gestures, but I did not love myself so how could I love you?
They also say in those meetings, “We will love you until you can love yourself.” With God’s grace, they did. With God’s grace, I stayed sober. And here I am, 31 years later. I am still hugely imperfect at loving my neighbor, but I get up every day and help others get sober as best I can. I reach out to neighbors across bumpy chasms of cultural difference as best I can.
I continue to gaze. The mop head moves! It slowly stretches, rising to become a perfectly convincing gray and white cat, just as I — through the transformative power of God’s love — have become a perfectly adequate version of a missioner, a Catholic able to love herself and her neighbors.
Scripture reflection for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Sept. 17, 2023 (24thSunday of Ordinary Time).
For more scripture reflections from Maryknoll lay missioners, click here.