Sometimes duty (and obligation) is a loving path in disguise
How do you love the Lord? How do you love an incorporeal being, this God that we can’t see or touch or converse with? What if your understanding of love is broken and jaded through years of rejection and heartache and the idea of selfless unconditional love is as foreign as another language? What if you want to love the Lord but have no idea how?
I received an email recently from a Catholic who asked those very questions. The writer admitted to only going to Church and confession out of fear of Hell and not love of the Lord. Obedience to church teaching was born out of duty and obligation, as opposed to an act of love. At the heart of the letter was a request for advice on how to grow in love for God and His church.
To answer this very honest question I think it’s important, firstly, to recognize what love is and looks like, versus what love isn’t.
Love isn’t a Hollywood rom-com. It isn’t the gushing goofy feelings of a new relationship. Love isn’t feeling happiness all the time.
I love my son but I may not always be happy with everything he says or does. That doesn’t mean I love him less.
A husband and wife may argue, and not like each other very much in that moment, but at the core of their relationship love still exists.
Friends fight, siblings argue, parents and children clash, and spouses get on each others nerves yet all still manage to love each other.
Sometimes even expressing this love doesn’t look like much, at least on the surface. A husband and wife may express their love for each other by holding hands, gifts of flowers, or words of praise and encouragement, of course, but other times this love can be expressed by taking out the trash without having to be asked, or remembering to put the toilet seat back down. While the latter is obviously less romantic it’s still an expression of love. Parents sacrificing for their kids is an expression of love, even if that sacrifice is unpleasant and they’re not really happy about doing it.
Love is expressed in many ways, even – perhaps especially – in acts of obedience and duty.
If you go to Mass out of obedience to church teaching, and go to confession out of obligation, that is an act of love. A fear of Hell is an understanding that actions have consequences and that consequence is offense to the Lord. Even a desire to not offend the Lord and incur the wrath of Hell can be viewed as an expression of love.
I would say to anyone dutifully living their faith that they love the Lord by keeping His commandments and following His church.
It is in the Mass and the reception of the sacraments that we as Catholics will grow in love for the Lord. Over the years I’ve had my own struggles trying to love the intangible Lord. It was like grasping at smoke and trying to hug the air. But love is also perseverance and will.
To anyone wondering about this heavy question of duty, obligation and the search for the love of God, I would say continue to obey His church and receive the sacraments. Be active in your prayer life and pray for an increase in love. Be persistent in your desire to grow in love. Implore the aid of your guardian angel and patron saint and visit the Lord in adoration. Nurture your relationship with God like you would with anyone else – by spending time with Him in prayer and learning about Him through His word.
God’s love for us is unfathomable but we are given a glimpse of the self-sacrificial love in the image of the crucifix. Many people who grew up in abusive environments struggle with the idea of a love that is unconditional, for them I recommend spending time contemplating the crucified Christ. The cross is the cure for our heart’s hurt, as it is a tangible expression of God’s love for us. It’s something we can see and feel and hold. The sacraments are also how God makes Himself tangible for us to love.
“Keep the crucifix before your eyes, and it will teach you everything…”
It’s in this way that God makes Himself available to us and teaches us to love. Love, like any language, can be learned. His church and our prayer are what makes us fluent in this language.
And lastly, perhaps most basically, just ask. If we want to grow in love, we must ask to grow in love.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish?” Matt: 7:7-10
When not going to Mass might be a cry for mercy