The formula to sainthood to which we are all called is to know, love, and serve God so that we can be with Him forever. It is concise in explanation, but can be very difficult in application. Yet, in this simple statement, we can see a natural progression. Those who come to know God will be drawn deeper into love with Him, and those in love with God will desire to serve Him. None of this can be accomplished by ourselves, but only through the grace of God which is available to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. To know God takes more than memorizing facts about God. It takes time spent in prayer, celebration of the sacraments, and living each day intentionally with God. When God continues to reveal Himself to us, we desire to love Him more. But what does loving God practically mean? Well that depends on the definition of love.
Whenever I would ask my class about the definition of love, the answers were all generally the same. They centered around feelings. Love is someone making me so happy that I always want to be with them, or Love is feeling like I would do anything for someone no matter what! Yet, anyone who has ever truly loved before knows that these definitions fall short. In a culture of self-gratification, there is a tendency to claim that “feeling” is truth. While feeling can inform us of what truth is and should be evaluated in all circumstances, it is often not the indicator of truth in a fallen world.
So what is love? St. Thomas Aquinas gives us a definition of love as “to will the good of the other.” When Thomas says this, he means a person’s objective ultimate good as given by God, not a relativistic opinion of the good based on feelings. Under this definition, there is room for us to listen to our feelings, and discern whether or not they are leading us to love or not. Another way to frame this definition in a way that may be more tangible is to call love a “complete gift of self”, no matter the manner. To love God is to give ourselves fully, and completely to him, holding on to nothing. The person who climbs the mountain of the Lord has “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24). They come only bringing themselves unreservedly so they can fully receive His graces.
Yet, even though we know we only have to bring ourselves to God, we often think we have to earn the love of God before He will bless us. What Catholic School, parenting, and sermons from the pulpit can fail to teach us is how God’s love really works. If we fail to break free of our capitalist mindset, ‘transactional love’ can often replace the notion of self-gift. We can be tempted to think, if we go to mass every sunday, follow the commandments, and pray before meals, then we have secured God’s love. But if we sin, we believe in our hearts that God’s love has been taken away from us until we earn it back by going to confession or by ‘canceling it out’ with another good deed. This is not the love of God. Yet no matter how many times we hear it, the cultural influence of a transactional society is so hard to break free from.
God, who is a jealous lover, desires to draw us deeper into Himself, not for His sake, but for our good and perfection. No matter our sins and failures, He draws close to us no matter the cost as is evident by the crucifixion. The more He reveals himself to us AND we accept Him, the more we will desire to spend time with Him in prayer. The more we spend time with Him, the more we become the men and women we were created to be. This means to receive the love of God, our quiet prayer is meant to be passive prayer. We must sit in the presence of God, and ask for Him to change our wants, desires, and temptations to conform them to His will. In other words, we must make most of our time in prayer about listening to the Holy Spirit, not speaking about ourselves or falling into the temptation of our lack of worthiness to receive God’s love.
But loving God in prayer does not always take the form of quiet contemplation. Participating in the work of your personal and social vocation is the prayer of our bodies working in the vineyard of the Lord. It is what allows us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16) without spending 12 hours on our knees. Yet, if we have no quiet time with God, praising, asking, thanking, and interceding periodically throughout our day, then our work will cease to be prayer. If a Christian is serious about knowing and loving God, they must begin and end their day with no less than ten minutes in quiet prayer, with multiple ‘retreats’ to His presence throughout the day.
Spending time with God results in a relationship with Him through which we receive His love, regardless if we think we are worthy or not. In turn, that love makes us yearn for constant communication with God, whether spoken or through our actions. It is in this love, that we will the good of God through self-gift. Because God is pure love, when we will His Good, it means that we are willing the good of all – including ourselves. It is in this reciprocation of love that we receive the peace of Christ which draws us into His service.