Some time ago, while on a train from Washington to New York, I became engaged in conversation with a young man. He was a graduate of a Catholic college, proud of the fact, and quite determined that the Faith was to be his guiding star through life.
A friend had recently given him a copy of the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. What surprised him most, he said, was the ease with which this young nun talked of her intimate friendship with God. Oh, he had learned in school that we are in this world to love God, but he had never known that this love could be an intimate, personal friendship. In his prayers, he was always most formal with God. He had always believed that he was loving God in the only way expected of him when he tried to observe the Ten Commandments and the precepts of the Church.
His relation to God had been one of duty and honor, like that of a soldier to his country. He found it quite natural to praise God. He enjoyed singing “Holy God, we praise Thy name,” and one of his regular prayers was “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”
But he had never been taught to love God as a child loves his father. After all, God is a spirit, and it is not easy to think of Him as a Father. Prayers based on filial relationship seemed exaggerated. He had never realized that it is possible to fall in love with God — to think of Him continually, to try to please Him in all one’s actions, as one thinks of and tries to please a person he loves. It had even seemed to him that intimate conversations with God were either expressions of pure sentimentality or pleasures to be enjoyed only in the next world.
I explained that falling in love with God is no mystery to those who are schooled in the saints or who are acquainted with some of the more ardent souls in religious life. It is the ideal of priests, brothers, nuns, and many devout laypeople. To say that falling in love with God is impossible is to deny an obvious fact: countless souls have done precisely that.
I ventured to say that perhaps he had never analyzed the full meaning of love. But I learned that he, like most young people, prided himself on knowing something about it. He believed in love, he told me — human love that occupies the whole mind and heart of the lover; love that becomes so much a part of a man that his thoughts turn continually to his beloved; love that tugs at the heartstrings and makes itself felt whenever the mind has a moment to itself.
When I smiled skeptically to show that I was not at all sure he knew what true love was, he quickly added that he was not considering only the emotional kind of love. He knew what true love is. It lasts forever, he said, even after the beauty and freshness of youth have vanished. You can see it in the eyes of the mother who spends sleepless nights watching over her sick child. You can see it in a husband who for years has devoted himself with amazing kindness and patience to an invalid wife. It is written on the haggard face of a young soldier as he drags his wounded comrade back from the front lines.
He had the right idea. He was not confusing love with emotionalism or sentimentality. Love can express itself through the emotions; it may manifest itself in the happiness and joy of a newly wedded couple or in the sadness that shrouds a family that has just lost its mother. It is clearly found in the life of Jesus. When He was told that Lazarus was dead, Jesus wept. And the people, seeing this, said, “Behold how He loved him.” True love can break forth and express itself in deep emotion, but it can also be externally cold — as unemotional as paying the income tax or washing dishes.
Love calls for self-giving
What, then, does loving someone really mean? It means that a person wants good to come to another; it is to will that good may come to him. True love is reasonable; it is not blind. It springs from the recognition of good that is grasped by the intellect and presented to the will as desirable. True love is also effective, demanding action from the lover, who feels driven to do something for the beloved.
Everyone, young or old, strong or weak, can love. But in this world, love is bound up with giving; it entails sacrifice. The highest kind of love means self-offering. Jesus told us this: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
It is easy to see that this is true of human love, but it is also true of love for God. What great love for Christ burned in the heart of St. Peter as he was crucified with his head in the dirt of the earth! Who can doubt the love of Paul for Jesus, as Paul was led outside the walls of Rome to be beheaded! And in our own day, who can help but marvel at the deep love of God that grew stronger day by day in the soul of St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, whose dying words were “My God, I love Thee!”
Some people may not be convinced by these examples. They may argue that they are isolated cases, coming shortly after conversion or accompanied by special help from God. And anyway, they may say, spur-of-the-moment heroism is not uncommon. But what of tender, intimate love of God spread over a whole lifetime? The fact that even busy laypeople can fall deeply in love with God — that is the mystery.
In human love, the lover always seeks his beloved. Separation is something very painful; presence, possession, is an indescribable joy. Lovers talk to one another, even if they do not say much. Words are not weighed and studied with them; even the most insignificant words have a special meaning and are understood. A glance, an embrace, a sigh, a loving phrase — this is the language of lovers. It is true love, deeply felt and capable of raising the lover to the heights of heroism. It does not last for only a day or a week; it can endure for a lifetime — a lifetime of joy, or even of sorrow. It expresses itself in fidelity and wholehearted service.
Is such love possible between God and man? How can man be always with God, possessing Him, as the lover must? How can man carry on a loving conversation with God? Is this not merely wishful thinking?
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Fr. Healy’s book, Awakening Your Soul to the Presence of God, available from Sophia Institute Press.