by Father John Bartunek
From Catholic Spiritual Direction
Q: Dear Father John, If contemplative prayer is seeking Him whom my soul loves, what does one do to learn how to love God? I see this as a huge gap in the development of Catholic life and Catholic spirituality among the laity. We teach people how to worship, how to pray, what is right and wrong, but we never teach people – young or old – how to love the God we cannot see and touch and hold, and what that love is like compared to loving our mother or friend or spouse or child. Isn’t contemplative prayer empty until we can get to that point?
A: If we were having an in-person conversation, my response to your question would be another question: What do you mean by “love”? It’s a word that can be used in many ways. Let’s start by reflecting together on that term.
Love as Emotion
Love can be an emotion or a virtue. As an emotion, it consists of a feeling of attraction towards someone or something. Along with that feeling of attraction, we experience a desire to possess or be connected to the loved object. In this sense, we can talk about “loving” ice cream, or cats, or movies. This meaning is also linked to the experience of “falling in love,” which involves a powerful, sometimes almost overwhelming, feeling of attraction for another person. Often this feeling is immediate, mysterious, and irrational. That doesn’t make it any less energizing, influential, or important.
Love as Virtue
The word “love” can also refer to a virtue: the virtue of wanting another person to exist and flourish. This is what our Lord referred to when he commanded us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). This is a decision to seek and promote the good of others, regardless of how I feel towards them. I may feel a strong emotional aversion to someone, but I can still love them in this sense of the virtue – in fact, I am commanded to love them in spite of contrary emotions. Another term used to describe this kind of Christian love, which considers only the need of the other, not one’s own emotional attachment, is mercy (and sometimes “charity”).
The Church has taught from the first Christian centuries that this virtue of loving one’s neighbor is central and critical to Christian living. Traditionally, the Church recommends the “works of mercy” as the normal channels for us to exercise this love. The Catechism summarizes these in #2447: “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.”
As with every virtue, to grow in love requires exercising love. And so, a key way for us to grow in love (as you ask in your question), is simply to exercise this virtue of love. We are to make a concerted effort to serve others, to seek and promote what is good for them, and to do so as Christ has done with us, with great patience, kindness, and selflessness (see 1 Corinthians 13).
Love as Supernatural Charity
This same word can be used in yet a third way: for supernatural charity. This refers to the love of God himself, that love that the three persons of the Trinity have for each other, and the love that God has for us. It also refers to the theological virtue that Christians receive at baptism and develop as they mature spiritually. It enables the Christian to love God with the very love of God – in other words, it enables us to enter into the circle of love that is the Trinity. We become part of God’s own family through this supernatural gift of grace that shows itself forth in theological charity. But it also overflows. As we love God with his own Trinitarian love, we find ourselves loving others and even all things in God and for God.
This is the love that Christ referred to when he gave his New Commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). This is the love shown by the saints, like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose love for her neighbor reached such a heroic degree. The connection between our loving God and our loving our neighbor was made explicitly by Christ in the Gospels. It would be a contradiction to say that we love God when we refuse to accept, serve, and appreciate our neighbors. After all, God loves all people, so if we really love him, we too will love all people. This love for God also shows itself in our obedience to God’s will in our lives. Jesus was “obedient unto death on a cross” out of his love for the Father and for us (Philippians 2:8). And so, obedience to God’s will out of love for God is another means for growing in love – it exercises our love for God, and therefore increases it.
This is essential to be able to answer your question. To “love” God means to desire and pursue a greater communion with him at all times. This communion increases primarily through our reception of grace in the sacraments, and through our obedience to his will (what is “right and wrong” as you say in your question). It also increases through our efforts to imitate Christ in loving our neighbors; this is precisely how we can love the God “we cannot see” as you mention: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). In this sense, loving God does not consist essentially in experiencing a strong emotional resonance when we think of God or enter into prayer. God may give us the emotional experience of love in our relationship with him (especially at the beginning of our spiritual journey – kind of like our spiritual “honeymoon”), but the essence is much deeper than emotion.
In our next post on this topic, we will talk about how love as emotion, virtue, and supernatural charity come together as we grow spiritually. We will reflect on the relationship between prayer and love, and how we grow in love.