Sign Up for our Free Daily Email Updates / Catholic Spiritual Direction

How does a person learn to love God? – Part I of II

June 17, 2012 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Love, Prayer, Virtue

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?  

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

please consider supporting our mission with a donation!

  • LizEst

    Happy Father’s Day to all fathers, godfathers, Reverend Fathers, spiritual fathers, and our Father in heaven!

  • LizEst

    Excellent post. Thank you Father John.

    “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” 1Cor 13:13-14a

    We are sinners in the process of becoming saints and being perfected in love. Because most of us are still on the road to that perfect love of God, we are still learning to love God and our hearts are divided between God and the things of this world. The sacrament of penance helps clean our souls of that imperfect love. As Blessed Mother Teresa said, “A clean
    heart is a free heart [and] a free heart can love Christ with an undivided love.” But, we must not wait until our hearts are undivided. We must be begin! We must be on the Way and put forth into the deep, and, with Christ’s help and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, progress in love and holiness. Just like in the parable of Prodigal Son, God will meet us while we are still a long way off.

    So, no, contemplative prayer is not empty until we get to that point of perfect love of God. God constantly fills us with His light, His life and His love. He loves us so much that He always gives us so much more than what we know or comprehend. But, He speaks to us ever so gently, only lifting the veil, only gifting us with what we can handle spiritually and tangibly when we are ready to handle it. In this, He is also the one helping and guiding us. He never forces anyone to accept Him but is always knocking at the door to our souls. He will enter and be with us if we but let him, if we but have courage and wait for the Lord.

  • It´s amazing that God Himself is inviting us to participate in His intimacy.

    • LizEst

      You are so right, Padre Sada. We cannot even imagine it!

  • judeen

    Love…. a heart of stone.. or hard heart… – can not let love in or let their love out or let their pain out .. mean , hard .. tuff…
    this kind of person hurts so bad.. they become hard.. have little to no feelings.. for everything inside hurts… wounds to big to cry… there is no use.. they think… to help these people is to pray for gift of tears. to cry for them enough so they can cry.. let the pain go.. and forgive… what ever made them so stoney.. as they break down it is like opening flood guides wounds of all kinds will come to the surface…

  • judeen

    there is a fine line between love and hate… been there… done that.
    I loved so much , but the person would not love me back,,, so I thought.. and it turned to hate,,, it was really a deep love… 1 sees this in divorce… abused children.. so on… a love that expects something back from the person they love and they think they are not getting it back… so they think they hate that person.. instead of love… but if they really hate them , why do they talk about them all the time… another deep wound of love.

    • LizEst

      So sorry for your loss, judeen. May the Lord in his mercy heal you from this and all other wounds. God bless you.

      • judeen

        I had no loss.. yes I expereinced what love really is . .. my selfishness of wanting love back.. and yes I thought I hated but it was really a deep love.. and big wound.. it was just a road to learn what Jesus Crusifed love really is… the understanding.. of what love really is… so too we need to understand this to help others who are hurting really bad.. to be hands and ft. of Jesus.. and help people heal… ( this can even go into war toren countrys.. for the people who kill are deeply wounded… – to find Jesus they need to let go of the pain… Jesus is excepted with great exsuberance..!!) do you follow me?

        • LizEst

          Sorry about the misunderstanding. It sounded to me like you had a loss because you loved and the person would not love you back. For me, that would be a loss.

          • judeen

            yes, it was a deep sorrow… many people go through . .. it is easyer looking back… and looking for God in it all now… but it was also a deeper walk with God… when 1 loves someone it doesnt matter if they love you back… or if they love you the way you want them to… that is what love is… something we all forget.. as Jesus was on the cross and loved.. he also said forgive them for they do not know what they do…

          • LizEst

            Yes, God loves indiscriminately…and that’s what we all must do. God bless you, judeen.

  • jdobbinsPHD

    Hi Father,
    I see attraction as an emotional reaction, but I see love as an act of the will. One leads into and sets the stage for the possibility of the other. Before I can love someone I have to know them, and at some point I make an act of the will to love them. The emotion of attraction draws me close enough to begin the exploration to see if love is a possibility with this person. Love includes in some way giving part of myself to them in a way that requires a level of exclusivity and fidelity. When that love is reciprocated, and the acts of the will are mutual, this can lead to marriage. The whole process mirrors the way God draws us to love him. Scripture is a love story, the story of God courting mankind and bringing man to the point of loving God so we can enter into spiritual marriage with God. Moses brought us to the point of betrothal, so well exemplified in Psalm 139, and Jesus brought us to spiritual marriage in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist He gives us Himself completely just as in marriage husband and wife give themselves to each other completely, and He expects us to reciprocate by offering ourselves to Him. I think God gave us the sacrament of marriage to help teach us how to love Him.
    In the process, we also learn how to explore the other dimensions of love, such as love of parents, love of siblings, love of neighbor. For some of us, after teaching us something about love, God calls us to love Him exclusively, in a foretaste of what the full experience of Divine union will be in Heaven, and so we have the priesthood and professed religious life. But love, in any of its aspects, involves giving of self to others, whereas attraction seems to be something you receive, i.e., the emotional high of being near something of beauty. Perhaps this is why the Beauty of God is such an integral part of Orthodox spirituality.

  • GHM_52

    Thank-you for this clear explanation, Father. It is hard for most of us to grasp the notion of a love not based on emotion…on the senses. After all, that is the way we usually experience feelings we call love. I think we need to hear more about this so that we may better understand how to love others as God loves us. Perhaps those who are parents have more experience with “right loving”; that is, with being acquainted with that desire of wanting another to have abundant life and to flourish. God bless you!

  • Thank you, Father, for this wonderful Post on Love for God and neighbour as God loves us. My view is that loving God and my neighbour as He disires, is not so much an act of our emotions, likes or dislikes, comfort or discomfort, but is primarily an Act of the Will – through the Grace of the Holy Spirit – to desire and strive to align our will to that of God which daily He reveals to us in our life situations. To do this, God’s Grace must be active in us because as He told us “Without Me you can do nothing”.

    This old lady finds this Prayer very helpful to remain faithful to God and strive, through His Grace and Action in my heart and soul, to be less unworthy of the innumerable blessings and Graces He has, and continues to bestow on me and my loved ones. Living an active Sacramental Life opens my heart’s door for God to help me control and deal with – frequent slips and falls notwithstanding – the little “enemy” within me……my puny disruptive ego.
    “Eternal Father, this day is full of beauty and adventure, help me Lord
    to be fully alive to it all. During this day, may I become a more thoughtful
    person, a more prayerful person, a more generous and kindly person.

    Help me not to be turned in on myself but to be sensitive and helpful to
    others. Let me do nothing today that will hurt anyone, but let me help at least
    a little, to make life more pleasant for those I meet.

    When night comes, may I look back on this day without regrets; and may
    nobody be unhappy because of anything I have said or done or failed to do. Lord
    God, bless this day for me and all of us. Make it a day in which we grow a
    little more like your Son, and gentle as Mary His Mother.

    Through Jesus Christ Christ Our Lord, Who lives and
    reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God for ever and ever. Amen”

  • lh

    Fr John, was hoping to see part 2 yesterday but another question was posted :). Thank you.

Skip to toolbar