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

July 2, 2012 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Loving God, 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?

In our first post, we discussed the meaning of the word “love”. We reflected together that love can be an emotion or a virtue, and for supernatural charity that refers to the love of God himself.

Growing in Love

As we grow spiritually, these three meanings of love come together. Our love for God begins to put order into our emotions, and we discover less contrast between our natural emotional preferences and the demands of virtue. Our love for God also begins to purify our minds and hearts, so that we begin to see others as God sees them, and even their objective flaws and imperfections do not impede our appreciation of them. Likewise, as our love for God matures, we embrace his will with more and more emotional relish, even when his will contradicts our natural preferences.

But on the road to that maturity, the different loves can cause a lot of turbulence in the soul. We can simultaneously experience a profound emotional repugnance towards a person that we know we must serve with kindness. On the other hand, we can feel a powerful emotional attraction towards someone that we should not become emotionally involved with. In this case, the virtue of love will enable us to keep a respectful emotional distance. Sometimes it will take every ounce of our strength to resist a temptation against obedience to God’s will. The spiritual life really is a battle.

Love and Prayer

Now we can bridge into a brief reflection on the relationship between prayer and love. Our life of prayer both flows from our love for God (which propels us towards a deeper and deeper communion with him), and nourishes that love. This is why we can’t say that prayer is “empty” until we love. Rather, prayer is an expression of love (whether immature or mature) and a way to nourish our love.

Contact with God in prayer allows his grace to purify us from selfishness and darkness of sin, to remove obstacles that impede our love for God and neighbor. Mental prayer (meditation and acquired contemplation) is critical in this process. Meditation exercises and strengthens our faith, hope, and charity. And if God grants us the grace of infused contemplation, it does the same thing: it strengthens, purifies, and enlightens the soul, so that we can then imitate Christ more fully in our daily living. Remember, St. Teresa of Avila ceaselessly reminds us that “the water is for the plants.” In other words, the consolation that God grants us in prayer (and there is no greater consolation that that which comes from infused contemplation) is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a gift from God that actually inflames our hearts with greater love, and leads us to grow in the Christian virtues, especially love.

Normally, the gift of infused contemplation will be given only when a person has already developed a marked maturity in faith, hope, and supernatural charity. Otherwise, the contemplation may overwhelm the soul, and the person could easily become enamored more of the gift of consolation than of the giver of that gift.

Let us all continue to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) as we strive to live a deeper love for God and neighbor. And in his wisdom, God will surely harmonize in our souls the emotion and the virtue of love, so that “his joy may be in us, and our joy may be made full” (cf. John 15:11).

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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 RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Becky Ward

    Wonderful post Fr. John! I am reminded that my spiritual director told me that all gifts we receive are for the good of the whole body of Christ. So my job is to pray and discern how He is asking me to use the gifts for the good of the Church.

  • LizEst

    Excellent! Thank you for this post, Father John.

    …and let us not forget that “God is love.” (1 John 4:16). So, how do we love Love but with God’s own Love? With this love we enter into the Trinitarian life. St. John was so right when he continued, “whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” (1 John 4:16). And, it is Jesus who has enabled us, by his life, death and resurrection, to enter into the life of Love. Blessed be God!

    • Thank you for mentioning John 4:16! He reminded me of that in my morning prayers just now. It’s not easy to remain in Him even if I want to.

  • CFS

    Love isn’t always about how we feel. I was distressed that I often feel little love for God or consolation when I go into church to take Communion to the sick. I felt sorry to have so little love to offer Him. But a counselor told me that this IS love, to do what we should.

    • LizEst

      CFS,
      Your fidelity to the Lord and the work He has called you to do IS love. Obedience, fidelity and mercy are hallmarks of God’s love. You are reflecting that love when you live out your faith and love of Him by being faithful to His commandments even when there is little or no consolation (Mother Teresa labored many years without consolation). Your testimony is very great, indeed. Likewise, I suspect God is very pleased with you. And, he never fails to give overflowing reward those who love him. You won’t find a better Friend.

    • Becky Ward

      Fr. Barron uses this definition of love. Love is “willing the good of the other.” This can be particularly difficult when we face issues in which we must use ‘tough love’. (Doing what’s best for the other even when they don’t like it and it hurts us too!) I’m sure all parents will know about this! You’re right CFS – it isn’t about how we feel. 🙂

      • LizEst

        Thanks for that quote from Fr. Barron. God bless you!

      • $1650412

        I think that is also called solicitude.

  • Fr. Wm. Tom Davis, OSA

    Perspectives… The original question asks about a God that cannot be seen, that cannot be touched and held. I would agree with this from an older perspective I used to hold on to, until after spending time delving into the Letters of St. Paul and the understandings from St. Augustine, the great Doctor of Grace.

    In the Eucharist, we touch and hold on to our Lord’s precious body and blood. For many Catholics I’ve spoken to, they don’t truly believe that the Eucharist is the real presence, the real Body and Blood of Jesus. They see them as elements. I agree that there are some priests who do not expound upon the truth of the Eucharist, and I feel that this confuses people.

    In John we hear that the Word was/is God, and that through the Word all was created. I hold that God “touches” us in the Word, in fact if we seek to understand it better, the word inflames us, consumes us, helps us to be the men and women God created us to be.

    And it is through reading and seeing the Word that we can better understand our relationship with God. I think that his understanding of Love stems from his perspective of who he is in relation with God. Please remember that God gives everyone a very special dignity; that in the Book of Genesis we hear that all of us are created in God’s beautiful image, yes everyone of us, no matter who we think we are or where we might be in that special relationship, God freely gives us that gift of being made in His image.

    The second part of that dignity is that we have His Spirit dwelling inside of us, that as St. Paul exclaims, we are “temples of God’s Spirit” (1Cor 3:16). Being made in God’s image and having His Spirit within us makes us all very special.

    St. Augustine says that we “become what we receive.” As a Eucharistic people, when at Mass the priest asks for the Epiclesis of the Holy Spirit to come down on the bread and wine, he then also asks that (in Canon III) we become through the Eucharist we receive and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we become the body of Christ.

    To be able to continually develop that love, that relationship with God we must also work on the commandment that Jesus asks us to do; Love god with all you have, mind body and soul; and love your neighbor as… yourself.

    This love that people are searching for is really if you think about it, within yourselves. If we don’t know what love is, if we don’t know how to share it, if we don’t know how to receive it, then we will always be “lost,” and it is through contemplative prayer, our engagement with God’s Spirit inside of us that we can come to understand the great love God has for us, and how it is that we can be the loving people God created us to be.

    Remember when Jesus would get stressed, and he would go off into the desert for forty days. What was He doing then, and who was he praying to? He was praying to God; and if we as Catholics believe in a Triune God, that he is the second part of the Holy Trinity, then who was he really getting in touch with, but Himself, and as both human and divine, He was getting in touch with the Spirit dwelling within him. This is the perfect example of what contemplation is.

    God knows our hearts. He knows what we are all about, and He wants us to come to him, even in our troubles, even in our pain, even in our weaknesses, He lovingly comes to us where we are. He knows that we can’t even fathom His love or understand why He does what He does, yet He, like the Prodigal Son’s father, races out to greet us and give us back the dignity as his children.

    St. Augustine says in the first paragraph of his autobiography, The Confessions, “O’ Lord, you have created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Yes, we are indeed restless for God, but with new perspectives of ourselves and who God is and how close He is, we can make/take the time to learn to love Him by just engaging in the same type of prayer that our Lord Jesus did, contemplating our loving God’s Spirit within us. It does take time and effort, but is not that part of the prayer we pray, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We got to get it right here. Earth is “bootcamp” for heaven.
    Please remember that God loves and is also restless for you.
    Please know that you are in my prayers.

    • LizEst

      Ah yes, the Lord has a great history of coming to us, of meeting us where we are. He gives himself so completely, on the cross, in his Word, in the Eucharist, in those among us and in our hearts. What wondrous love is this that gives us “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding” (cf Philippians 4:7)? Oh, “If [we] knew the gift of God!” Jn 4:10. Yes, Augustine got it right. “In God alone is my soul at rest” Ps 62:1a. If our treasure is with Him, there will our hearts be as well (cf Mt 6:21). God will come to us and make His dwelling with us (cf Jn 14:23). And, we will find Him whom our hearts desire (cf Song of Songs 3:3).

      • $1650412

        Love this response LizEst!

    • Becky Ward

      Thanks Father! That was beautiful…and I am grateful for your prayers!

  • MelissaStacy

    Thank you for this wonderful discussion and for all the encouragement to “strive to live a deeper love for God and neighbor.”

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