How to Love God

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

I love you, Lord. Psalm 18

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Matthew 22:37

From the time we are small children, we are instructed to love God with all our hearts. The Bible, our parents and our teachers tell us to, and we try.

We pray and go to church. We attend parish picnics. We take an occasional shift at the soup kitchen.

But is that “love”? Certainly it’s upright behavior. But compared to our feelings for children, spouses, parents and even pets, it just doesn’t feel the same.

The natural state

Genesis tells us we are made in the image and likeness of God. While that may not translate into a photographic reality, we can believe it embraces God’s lovingness.

In other words, as Sister Catherine Cleary, OSB, says, we are made to love God.

“Loving God is in our genes,” the former biology teacher says. “We’re like sunflowers that turn toward the sun. We naturally turn toward God. It’s the deepest response of our being.”

Indeed, we were created from love and with love. As parents loving a newborn, God loves us, and we, in turn, grow to love God.

But how?

To fall in love with God is the greatest romance. St. Augustine

Saints, psalmists and prophets have all referenced love of God as being akin to great romance, while those laboring in the trenches of everyday marriage and family life may be somewhat less glowing about it.

But no matter how we get there, love for God is based on relationship. And relationship takes time, attention and commitment.

“The only way I can explain it is in human terms,” Sister Ruth Ksycki, OSB says. “Building a relationship with God is like becoming good friends with someone.”

Five steps to love

* The first step, she says, happens when we meet her or him, and want to explore friendship.

“We often meet a new friend through other people,” she says. “Our parents and teachers usually introduce God to us first.

“What created a hunger for more in me was my first personal encounter with God. It happened during a spectacular sunrise on a lake where my family was staying. I was very young. It really touched me, and made me want more.”

* Next, she says, we find ourselves wanting to learn more. With a new friend, we might meet for coffee. With God?

“Early on I went to almost daily Mass,” Sr. Ruth says. “I read stories about saints and prayed the Rosary.”

* The third step is an increasing desire to spend time together.

“Well, I became a Benedictine Sister,” Sr. Ruth laughs. “I always look forward to our quiet days of prayer and our annual retreat. I practice Lectio (the reading of Scripture in a reflective, not academic, way). I have never tired of this.”

* The fourth step is commitment.

“We have initial commitments of Confirmation, say, and entering a religious community,” Sr. Ruth says. “But commitment must be ongoing. It must take place every day. We practice our commitment with our daily communal prayer schedule, as well as Lectio and private prayer.”

* Fifth and last, Sr. Ruth says our growing love invites us to share it with others.

“Sharing our love deepens our relationship with God,” she says. “When we share it, the cycle begins over and over again. Each time we meet God in a new way, and we begin again with the first step.”

Being present to God

As with a friend, we deepen our relationship with God when we seek to be present, and pay attention to what God is saying.

“If I am really being present to my friend, I have to lose some of myself,” Sr. Catherine explains. “I have to give up, as it were, some of my own thoughts, ideas and time. The same is true when I pray.

“When we come before God to pray, we must let go of our ideas and senses. We must let go of our tendency to plan what to do next. There is a sense of emptying out as we sit or kneel or stand in the presence of God.”

Again, as with a friend, such attentiveness promotes intimacy.

“Friends become intimate when they really focus on one another,” Sr. Catherine says. “In an intimate relationship, you know one another’s pain, one another’s joy. This is what we gain in intimacy with God.”

Loving … anyone

But perhaps the more important question is how – or why – we can love anyone at all. That is, although we feel a swell of emotion when we consider our loved ones, we can’t articulate what exactly it is we feel or even why we feel it.

“Think about it,” Sr. Phyllis McMurray, OSB says. “If we try to tell someone why we love them we can say because they’re helpful, or because they’re nice. But really, it’s just because they are who they are.”

Which is the mystery of love.

“It’s the experience of having your heart touched,” Sr. Helen Carey, OSB says. “Whenever, wherever there is that sense of your heart being opened, that is love. It’s gift when it happens, when our hearts are touched in God’s presence.”

So, when we feel a stab of joy looking into the eyes of a child, burst into tears during a sad moment in a movie, or experience pain at another person’s pain, our hearts are touched, softened, opened. We experience love … love for God’s creation and love for God.

Being quiet, being open

So what is love for God? Are we supposed to fall in love romantically? Are we supposed to love God as parent? Or are we supposed to love God as friend?

The answers are yes.

Loving your child, your friend, your spouse or God begins with relationship. And while we know how to begin and build relationships with people, relationship with God begins most naturally with quiet attentiveness.

“You don’t have to go looking for God,” Sr. Phyllis says. “God is just present, in nature, in us. Maybe the best way to love God is by being open to God’s spirit working within us.”

“This is why contemplative prayer is so important,” Sr. Catherine says. “Unless you’re quiet, you might not see God’s face or hear God’s voice.”

That opportunity to see God’s face in a sunrise, or hear God’s voice in a piece of music comes more readily when we take time for silence.

“In quiet, we nurture wonder and awe and a sense of reverence for life,” Sister Sandra Brunenn, OSB says. “We nurture love of God by loving all creation and by being a part of God’s project. As our awareness grows, a feeling of harmony, oneness and participation grows.”

And as that sense of harmony grows, so also do comfort, trust, and love of God.