When I was little, I gobbled up book about saints, especially child saints. I wasn’t an especially pious kid; I was mostly in it for the fascinating, horrible details about martyrdom, and the dark self-interrogation about whether I could face down a lion or not. I was pretty sure I couldn’t, and I’d embarrass everybody by repudiating Christ, so I hoped that I’d have the chance to grow up a little before it was my turn to be martyred.
As I got older, I realized that my chances of being dragged by the hair into the Colosseum were pretty slim, so that was a relief. But one thing nagged at me: All the saints I read about, whether they were martyred or not, loved God. They really, really loved God, enough to willingly die for Him, enough to renounce their families for Him, enough to cheerfully surrender their riches and beauty and power for Him, enough to praise Him with their last dying breaths.
And I? I didn’t love God. I didn’t even like Him.
That worried me. It worried me all through childhood, where I experienced religion mainly as something that I felt guilty about being bored about; and it worried me all through my college years, when I very sharply felt the absence of a loving relationship with God, but had no idea what to do about it.
So now I’m 43. I still haven’t been martyred (except a little bit here and there), but I’m happy to report that I love God. I really do. I don’t always act like it, and I never act on it enough, but I do love God. The part of me that feels like my realest self wants Him, without hesitation. I don’t say this to brag, but with a sense of immense relief. Whatever else I’ve managed to screw up, whatever stupid roads I’ve blundered down, whatever vital projects I’ve left undone, at least that one thing is squared away! I love God. How did it happen?
You don’t need my autobiography here; but there are a few things I can tell you about which helped me learn to love God.
Because it is something many of us have to learn. Little St. Waffletrude may have sprung from her mother’s womb with a burning love for the Lord already blazing in her heart, but the rest of us need to collect some kindling to get that fire going.
First, I make a habit of reminding myself about all the good things that come from God. It’s very easy to look around and notice all the things that seem to be God’s failings: Why is there suffering in the world? Why do innocents feel pain? Why is everything so hard? Why are some people’s lives like this, but my life is like that? And so on.
It’s not wrong to ask these questions, and asking these questions are not incompatible with loving God, either. But we should also make sure we’re asking the companion questions, which are just as legitimate: Why is there joy in the world? Why do the undeserving know love? Why do so many good things come to me without any merit on my part? Why is my life like this, when it could easily be like that? Bless the Lord, o my soul!
It’s not a mere matter of counting one’s blessings until one cheers up. It’s a matter of retraining our hearts to see life as a gift with some complications, rather than as a burden with a few perks. The more we see the world rightly, as it really is, full of beauty, full of inexplicable gifts, full of mercy and wonder, the easier it will be to fall naturally in love with God, who made all of those things just because He wants us to have them.
The second way to learn to love God is to spend time talking to Him. You can’t love someone you don’t know, and you can’t get to know someone you never spend time with. A baffling number of Christians spend their lives talking about God without spending much time talking with Him. It simply has to happen every day, if you want to call yourself a Catholic.
If the rosary isn’t doing much for you, try spontaneous prayer; if spontaneous prayer feels inadequate, look to the Psalms to speak for you. But don’t quit praying. If you struggle with regular prayer (and I do, despite everything I’ve said above!), commit to saying, “Lord, I offer this day up to you” every single morning before you turn on your phone, get in your car, or snap on the radio. Keep that up and see what happens.
Of course, prayer and the sacraments go together, and the sacraments were given to us by God for the express purpose of helping us come closer to Him. But simply slogging yourself up the Communion line or dragging yourself in and out of the confession box aren’t going to teach you anything about God if you’re not actively looking to learn. We must pray; and we must train our hearts to see God in everything. This is how we will learn to love Him.
Loving Him is a pure gift for us. He doesn’t need our love (although He wants it). He is not lacking. But if we’re trying to stumble through our lives without loving him, then we’re making our own martyrdoms, with no one to praise with our drying breaths. If you were born with a fire of love in your heart, then God be praised! If you need to gather some kindling to prepare for that spark from above, then do it. Start today. To know Him is to love Him.