23rd Sunday : The Love of Constant Conversion

When couples who are going to be married in the Church come to see me for the first time I get them to fill out a brief questionnaire. The last two questions on the form ask: "What do you like best about your partner?" "What do you like best about yourself?" The first question usually presents no problems, although it can hold a few surprises and sometimes a playful punch if the right answer is not forthcoming! The second question seems to present all sorts of difficulties, especially for prospective grooms. Some of us find it hard to name the God-given qualities we value most in our character. Some couples try to pass it off, "That’s for others to say" or, "I don’t want to blow my own trumpet." Others try to dismiss the question as being new age or trendy. But the question does, in fact, cut to the heart of both today’s second reading and Gospel. "You must love your neighbour as you love yourself." We cannot say in the same breath, "I hate myself, but I am a good Christian." For St Paul, love of self was not indulgent, but the cornerstone of our mission to love as Jesus loves us. Paul knew the difference between self-love and self-adoration. Our love of God is expressed in the healthy and appropriate esteem we have for ourseleves. Put another way, we cannot love anyone else if we don’t love ourselves. If we have poor self-esteem then often we need others to fill up this gap in our self-love. Most relationships cannot sustain such a demand. The Church has to take some responsibility for this state of affairs. We used to be taught that mortification and self-denial were good Christian virtues, and indeed they can be. When properly understood they are never opportunities for self-hatred. The sanest spiritual writers in our tradition saw these virtues as paths of closeness with God and service of our neighbour. One such writer was St Ignatius Loyola who in the Spiritual Exercises saw that it was precisely as sinners that God loves us. He saw that one of the greatest gifts the Lord can give us is when we see our sinfulness for what it is, but are not overwhelmed by it, and that we experience the power of God’s love for us who calls us to walk as children of the light. Jesus in today’s Gospel attends to this destructive side of our human nature. Jesus teaches us that those who do not love their neighbour as they should are to be treated with dignity and respect and offered every opportunity to seek forgiveness until it is clear they can no longer be a part of the Christian family. The challenge and hallmark of the Christian life is the way in which we live out God’s love and forgiveness. And, although the Christian community should be the last group to exclude anyone, even we have to have our boundaries. Sometimes this involves holding others to account for what they say and do, especially if they claim to be a follower of Christ. The love and forgiveness of God does not mean that ’anything goes’. It is a love that calls for constant conversion. We can witness to it only to the degree that we have experienced it, from God, from others, and in the way we love and forgive ourselves. And we know when these qualities are taking deep root in us because answering a question like, "What do you really like about yourself?" is a piece of cake! Richard Leonard, S.J.

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