A Layman’s perspective
When I began this reflection about a year ago, I didn’t realize that it would become a living, breathing document that is continually evolving. I thought that I would just write what was on my heart and publish it to this web site with the hope that what I have experienced about my relationship with God may influence someone to look at their relationship with Christ and possibly deepen it. This has been more difficult than I anticipated. I have to agree with Saint Augustine when he wrote, “If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.” I probably have as many hours of reflection about this topic as I do in hours working on the “Deer in the Wild” carving. With that being said, let’s proceed.
To begin, let us define love. My first thought was, who could do that effectively? It’s like trying to describe God, the almighty. Certainly, I’m not qualified, but I do want to offer up a definition for this discussion. Simply, love is self-sacrifice or the act of giving of ourselves to others. God is love; His love is constant and unchanging. He gives us His all, as seen in His Son’s, Jesus, sacrifice and all the other manifestations that He has revealed to us. Through the God given theological virtues of faith, hope and love, God calls all people to himself. At the instant of our conception, God instills in us our soul that was made to know, love, and serve him. We are his creatures, body and soul, and our happiness and fulfillment as a human being depends on our knowledge of God and our response to his self –giving sacrificial love for each of us and our own ability to love. Grace is the infinite love, mercy, favor and goodwill shown to mankind and with the gift of free will, we can choose to discipline our thoughts and actions to respond to God’s grace appropriately and follow his plan for our lives and be set free or we can reject his guidance and direction and follow the world and our own plan, suffering the consequences of our egoism and sins.
There are as many ways to find Christ as there are people in the world, so my reflections will not by any means be a thorough explanation or a necessarily proper sequence of events to developing a greater love for God, but it will reflect my own layman’s experience at this point in my life and my response to God’s grace, and my Protestant/Catholic Christian background and faith. We are all somewhat products of our environments.
To begin this most exciting journey with God is not complicated and it doesn’t matter if you are Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Atheist or whatever, you can begin at this very moment. The Bible is very clear about this and it says that if you by prophese that you are sorry for your sins and with a humble heart ask Jesus Christ, God, the Savior of the world, to come into your life as your Lord and Savior, He will enter your life and help you become a child of God, through the Sacrament of Baptism. Of course this is a beginning and to develop a greater love for God requires effort and this discussion is all about that effort and God’s awesome gifts that He has blessed us with so that it is possible for us get to Heaven and spend eternity with Him.
For this discussion, I have identified ten positive responses to grace or, if you will, insights to loving God, that will increase our spiritual growth, as we each strive to become all that God is calling us to be and one huge negative impact that blocks grace in our lives and separates us from God, that being sin. It is difficult to describe these various levels of our growth of our love for God and I will tell you upfront that my explanations will be elementary at best, but this is how I have identified the various levels.
Temptation and Sin
Examination and Reconciliation
Consistency of commitment
The Blessed Mother
Frequent reception of the Sacraments
Scripture and spiritual reading
One may move through these levels differently and in combination of one or more at a time in their pursuit of God. For example, if a person died a martyr at a young age compared to one who had not heard and accepted Jesus as Lord until they were an older adult, obviously their experience of learning about God would be different, and their linear experience and the number of these insights would perhaps differ. Also, movement is not always one level to the next because many times we find ourselves after temptation and sin, back at realization or examination to get to confirmation, prayer and perception once again. Each level of our love for God enhances the next. The goal is to consistently move to a deeper appreciation of God’s love for us and our deepening devotion to him, but many times we find ourselves going one step forward and two steps back.
Although my experiences will not reflect every persons, there will be a common thread that meanders through all our experiences as we mature and come to know the purpose of life. I will reflect briefly not on any particular person’s journey, other than my own, but on, people in general, journeys that are mutual knowledge to all of us, as we all strive to know and love our God with our entire being.
Many Christian churches have ceremonies or, as in our Catholic tradition, Sacraments that recognize, reflect and somewhat correlate these various levels of our love for God. These gifts are visible signs that reflect invisible, internal, spiritual realities that were established by Jesus Christ. For example, the interior grace that we receive at Baptism. The priest prays the prayers and pours Holy Water on a person’s head as a sign that they are now washed clean from Original sin and are claimed by the priest for God and become children of God. As we move through the various levels in this discussion, I will do my best to note how the Sacraments, within the Catholic tradition, help us celebrate the grace we receive from God and our continuing growth of our love for God. As a matter of fact, in my humble opinion, worthy and frequent receptions of the Sacraments are necessary to bring us to a full knowledge of ourselves in our relationship with God and his Church.
I should point out that I am a convert to the Catholic faith. I grew up in a Methodist church and as an adolescent, I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior and developed my love for God, I suppose to the best of my ability. I would say at that point in my life, I experienced the levels of perception up to confirmation before backsliding to sin and pride for a long period of time. Because of my lack of maturity and other social influences, my love for the Lord waned and I found myself not going to church and not thinking of God much at all. I was at this level for approximately a decade before I once again responded to God’s grace in my life and re-started my roller coaster journey through these levels striving to get closer to God. Many of you can probably relate to this experience of knowing the Lord and then falling away from the Faith; it’s easy to do. But the Good News is that our loving God wants a personal relationship with us now, where we are, and wants to bring us to the fullness of His Love and mercy.
It was at this time in my life, at 29 years old, that I met the woman that became my beloved wife and the mother of our five awesome children. She invited me to her church, a Catholic church, and through the process of marriage preparation, RICA (Rite of Christian Initiation) and the continuing grace that God poured out on me, I embraced the Catholic faith. I have fond memories of the church of my youth and thank God and respect for my Protestant brothers and sisters, but as I have learned the celebration of the Catholic faith through the years, I have found a depth and breadth and fullness within the Catholic Church that is, I believe, beyond and from where other Christian denominations have their roots. Jesus, the Bible, the Catholic churches history, it’s traditions, its prayers and liturgies, the Saints, our devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the real presence of Christ at each Mass , all point to the one true Church that Jesus established and as Jesus said, the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I wholeheartedly believe this to be true and I have fully embraced the Catholic faith. If anyone would like a convert’s perspective of the Catholic Church, I would be glad to discuss this with you further.
Although my perspective is Catholic, I consider Protestants, brothers and sisters in the faith and all that I reflect on is this discussion will not only be pertinent to me and other Catholics, but to our Protestant brothers and sisters in the Lord who are striving to become all God is calling them to be. There celebrations of the graces received at the various points along the way may look a bit different, but are just as important, as they strive to love God with all their heart and soul.
I would also like to add that my understanding of the fullness of the Catholic faith continues to develop with time and as a fellow parishioner pointed out to me recently, I need further study, and I agree. I, a mere parishioner, and a convert on top of that, certainly don’t have all the answers and deep understandings to such a dynamic 2000 year old faith. Remember this exhortation is from a simple woodcarver, not a studied theologian. I too am a work in process.
Since God has allowed me the desire and time to articulate this thought about the depths of my love for God, my prayer and the purpose of this reflection is that it will in some way help me and you in our relationship with God, perhaps for the first time, recognizing and understanding more fully his great love for you, and you giving your life to him and/or…… to deepening our love for Him and giving God more of who we are.
Obviously after we are born, we rely totally on our parents and/or other adults in our lives for care and development. Even in our earliest months of life, however, we respond to a caring, loving and nurturing environment. Through God’s grace, we are made to love and respond to love with love and we sense this yearning for God at birth and throughout our lives if we choose to develop a relationship with Him. Our grandparents and parents’ influences, good or bad, guide and shape our early life for sure and more probably, influence our entire life and of course we continue the traditions with our own children, thereby perpetuating these generational influences. So for most of us our first physical experience of God is through our parents. If we have Christian parents, we were probably baptized and made children of God as a baby, as was the case for me. And even if we didn’t have Christian parents, we most likely received love from them, which is that self- giving sacrificial love that comes from God. The love they share with their children is from God, Love doesn’t exist without God. We ourselves are consciously unaware of this perception of God at this point in our lives, but we perceive this yearning for God by His inherent grace and are made aware of God’s love by our parents love and the graces we received at Baptism and other graces we receive from God, even if the parents are not aware of their participation with God. And I would develop this thought further to say that even without the love of parents in an infant’s life, God infuses this yearning for God and this perception in our souls, that He loves us and that our normal human response is to love Him back.
However, as time passes, this perception of God and His love finds its way into our consciousness as we grow older and progress in the spiritual life. This perception level of our love for God permeates all the successive levels that are identified and our ability to discern this perception or yearning for God will grow efficaciously as we mature in our love for God.
So this initial level of our love for God is instinctive and we all share in it, and it is further propagated by our parents love for us, but our ability to come to the fullness of its depth will depend on the seriousness of our commitment to God over time and we will never reach total fulfillment of this yearning for God, even in Heaven.
Recognition takes our love for God one step deeper by allowing us to gain an insight into salvation history by coming to know Jesus Christ. That inner desire to love God from birth will continue to propel us towards God and our family influences will either help or hinder us on this journey. This recognition of Jesus can be accomplished at a very young age if one grows up in a Christian home or it may take a lifetime to embrace, if ever, especially if the environment was impoverished with the lack of knowledge of the spiritual world and there was no one to share the Good News. If the latter is the case, it is a sad commentary on us Christians because we have failed to take Jesus’s mandate to take message of salvation to the ends of the earth, (the reason for this writing), so people can respond to the grace that was put deep in their soul. On the other hand, a person can deny and/or reject the message and promptings from God and choose the world view of life and do his own natural thing which leads to sin and death. So, all of us have a choice to follow our naturalness or to discipline ourselves by understanding the spiritual truths that God has revealed to us from His Son, Jesus Christ, thereby allowing us to lead a supernatural life.
Adults who convert to the faith have already learned something of love through their perception of God, but to begin their Christian journey, they must hear about Jesus from somewhere; an event, a person or a happening in their life. All the possible ways that one could come to wanting to know about God are endless and are a response to the Holy Spirit’s movement in people’s lives. I know that God can use any circumstance in people’s lives, good or bad for his Glory. For example; how a former drug addict that has successfully overcome his addiction, that has come to know the Lord more fully, can relate to those who find themselves in drug addiction and can share the love of God with them and perhaps be that catalyst for the drug addict’s initial response to the Holy Spirit’s movement in his/her life. God moves in ways far above the ways of man and it doesn’t matter how we begin a relationship with Jesus, just that we do, so we can respond to God’s grace and begin to live a life with meaning and purpose.
For those of us that grow up in Christian homes, as I did, we become more aware of God by attending church with our families and we begin to hear more about Jesus and the proclamation of the Bible; we begin to recognize stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses and other stories from the Old Testament and we learn from the Gospels about the birth of Christ and how he interacted with people of all kinds and how he went about proclaiming the good news, comforting and healing the sick. We experience praise and prayers to God, encounters with the living God, and learn about Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross in response for his great love for us and how if people believed in Him, he would come into their life and save them from their sins.
In the Catholic tradition, at this level or in the next level of recognition, most people have experienced the Sacraments of Confession (Reconciliation) and first Holy Communion (Eucharist), which I did not do, until I was an adult, because I was a convert to the Catholic faith, (but I have come to appreciate the grace received from frequent reception of these two Sacraments of Initiation). Not all young Catholics that have received these Sacraments, at this level, have the maturity to understand their significance, but Reconciliation has three elements: conversion, confession, and celebration. In it we find God’s unconditional forgiveness and as a result we are called to forgive others. In receiving the Eucharist, Catholics believe that this communion is both a sacrifice and a meal. We too are called to offer ourselves as a sacrifice with Christ. We believe in the real presence of Jesus and as we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, we also are nourished spiritually and brought closer to God.
The significance of these Sacraments continues to evolve as we move closer to loving God through the various levels of our love for God. At this level we recognize God and perhaps acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, but may not have the maturity to grasp the significance for our own lives. At this level, He may still be our parents and other people’s God, but we are beginning to learn how to live a supernatural life.
Non- believing adults, who come to Christ, prompted by grace from the Holy Spirit, go through similar processes of hearing about Jesus, knowing something of him and perhaps acknowledging Jesus as a real person or a prophet and they may or may not understand the Christian’s claim that he is God but not yet seeing His significance in their own lives.
This level is represented by coming to know Jesus better and is just a distance from the first level of perception, but this knowledge of God’s Christ took me some time, (several years), to move through as I was growing up. I would liken this stage as coming to know a friend. We need to be introduced to the person and initially we may attracted to this person, but it takes time to develop a relationship with someone as a friend because we have to spend time with them and share various experiences before we trust and embrace the friendship. The same holds true with developing a relationship with Jesus; we need to spend time learning about who He is and come to an understanding of what he has done for us and begin to know how He loves us.
This has been my experience, but as I have mentioned, the number of ways of coming to know Jesus more deeply is endless. Some people may hear the Word and will know immediately in their hearts that Jesus is the Savior of the world, and as a response to Grace, will spontaneously give themselves to Christ and their love of God will combine this level of recognition, and the next two levels of realization and confirmation into their yes. They may respond to God’s grace immediately by giving themselves wholeheartedly to the service of God and his people, perhaps like the people that become pastors or missionaries or respond to the vocations of priesthood and religious life, within the Catholic faith, and /or they might give the ultimate gift of themselves as a martyr for their love of God.
So, the characteristics of this level of our love for God are the recognition of Jesus as a person and learning of his attributes and His great love for mankind and perhaps moving to believing that is He is the Son of God, who could lead us to salvation.
This level is a continuation of learning about God and is a transitional phase to really knowing who God is and how he can make a difference in our lives. This level represents a personal choice to know more about Jesus, where the previous level of recognition was that of a continuing introduction to Jesus from others. This level of our love for God represents the movement toward the realization that Jesus is God and he loves me, as I am, more than I love myself and with that knowledge, we invite him into our life as our Savior and we want to give ourselves to him. This decision point confirms our faith, our love for God and represents the next level of our continuing growth of our love for God. This realization phase permeates the remaining levels of our love for God. If we are in the Catholic Church, we continue to respond to grace from the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist and possibly Reconciliation. Some people will make this transition naturally and quickly, while for others, it may take a considerable amount of time and heartache. Many people get stuck here and never comprehend or respond to the grace that God pours out on all people to come to know Him. This transition from this realization level to the confirmation level can happen in a myriad of ways. Let us explore just a few:
It could be a natural progression from learning about him at a young age and just wanting to know more about him.
We might continue to look at significant people in our lives and see how they respond to Christ and think that if this God is important to them, perhaps I should take a deeper look.
Or we could respond to a parent, priest, pastor, friend, or other’s invitation to come to church with them and respond to God’s grace.
It may be like my own personal experience of responding to a marriage partner’s and priest’s request to learn more about the Catholic faith through a RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) program in preparation for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and realizing that God still loved me, has mercy and forgives me in spite of my many previous sins and my current sinfulness.
Or possibly, we could have exhausted the worlds’ gods; those of pleasure, honors, sex, wealth, etc. and still feel empty and unsatisfied and turned to God in response to His grace.
Or perhaps we have been living a life of depravity and we have come to the end of our rope and we don’t know anywhere else to turn, so we respond to that inner yearning in our hearts for God.
Or it might be as simple as a Christian friend or an acquaintance that shares the depth of love he/she has for God, helping us to reevaluate our relationship with the Lord.
It doesn’t matter how an individual gets to this significant point of realizing that the God and creator of the universe loves me and accepts me where I am and wants a personal relationship with me, but it is a crucial point for each believer that allows him to respond to God with love, our own gift of self to God. This comprehension that God loves us so much that he gave his only Son, Jesus, for us, and our heartfelt response of giving all of who we are back to him, is pivotal in the heart of a believer. It allows us to move to the next level of our love of God, that of giving ourselves to God and asking Jesus to be our personal Lord and Savior. Until each of us reaches this understanding, our love, our giving of our self to God is probably fragile and superficial.
This is a culmination of the realization level and we say yes to Jesus, that we recognize him as the Son of God and the Savior of the world and invite him into our hearts. Many churches refer to this as the “born again” moment, beginning a personal relationship with him. Within the Catholic faith, the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation celebrate this level of our love for God within the Church and we receive additional grace to help us in our commitment. Confirmation is a mature Christian commitment and a deepening of baptismal gifts and is most often associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. (It is the third Sacrament of Initiation).
As I mentioned previously, I received Baptism as a baby, so I had been born of the spirit and water and had become a child of God and had received the graces attributed to this Sacrament. My yes to Jesus, the confirmation of my desire to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior was at a Methodist church camp when I was in my teens and there was no official ceremony to celebrate my commitment, but it was a decision that changed my life and I can still remember the events that lead to my confirmation plainly. The graces that acommpanied that decision was the culmination of the baptismal graces recieved many years before. and I was on fire for the Lord. Admittedly, even though my commitment waned for many years, later, when I was brought into the Catholic Church as an adult, I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, administered by our priest, and received additional graces to pursue my love of God.
Just as the realization level permeates confirmation, realization and confirmation are inherent in the remaining levels of our growth of love for God. We don’t move from one to the other but take on the qualities of each level to get to the next; for example, my yes (confirmation) to God was not a onetime decision, but is at this point of my life, a daily decision that finds its way in my daily prayer.
Now, at this point in our love for God, all Christians are on the same page so to speak, meaning it doesn’t matter what our background was or where we came from when we asked Jesus to become our Lord and Savior, (your confirmation), because we are all now brothers and sisters in Christ, striving to be Christ like in our walk with God. All the remaining levels of our love for God hinge on this decision and commitment.
Temptation and Sin
We are all called to be Saints, but in spite of our commitment, we all fall and as many of the Saints have said, “All is temptation”. The reality of our lives is sin and we all fall short of the glory of God. Although I’m speaking of temptation and sin here at this particular point in this discussion of the hierarchy of our levels of our love for God, it could be and usually is found throughout all the levels of our love for God.
Temptation in and of itself is not necessarily harmful to our relationship with God, but our response to temptation can be. Many of us discount the spiritual reality in our lives and that is just what Satan would have us do. He wants us to think that he doesn’t exist and to believe in only what our natural senses fathom. He wants us to believe that we can do anything that we want without consequences. Bishop Fulton Sheen had a comment about sin in his book. “Your life is worth living” that I think is significant. In paraphrasing, he said that people who don’t recognize the reality of sin in their lives might be the worst sinners of all. When something goes wrong and they offend God or they make a mistake that hurts someone they refuse to recognize the action for what it is, sin. They blame their action on a feeling like, I wasn’t quite up to myself today or that situation I was involved in caused me to react the way I did; No big deal, things like that happen all the time and it’s not my fault. There is no personal accountability and sin is not recognized for what it is. It’s impossible to negate the consequences of sin if one assumes that there is no sin.
Even those of us that recognize the spiritual realities are not exempt from temptation and sin. Our response based on our knowledge of the truths of God will help us overcome temptation hopefully, but when we do sin, we have recourse to forgiveness if we seek it with a sincere heart, have a true sorrow for offending God and a sincere desire not to sin again. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was given to the Church as a great gift by Jesus.
Temptation and sin are realities and if we believe it or not we are involved in spiritual warfare and our lack of knowledge of it is one of Satan’s greatest weapons. So, although this category is not a level of our love for God, it is necessary to recognize sin as a deterrent to growth of our love for God and make as much effort as possible to avoid sin in order to allow ourselves the opportunity to move through these various levels and deepen our love for God. Sin separates us from God.
Examination and Reconciliation
Just as my daily confirmation in prayer is amplified by the previous levels of perception, recognition, and realization, this level of examination enhances confirmation and helps to solidify our faith and so becomes an important level of our love for God. I know that my constant prayer is that I will be doing the will of God in my life. In the prayer Jesus taught us, He has us pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven” and most of us don’t get obvious directives from the Father saying, this is what I want you to do, so we are constantly striving to know what the will of God is in our lives. God speaks to us about his will through the scriptures, the Christian tradition, our prayers, and the circumstances of daily life. If we rely only on our circumstances of our lives to make decisions, we could fall into one of the traps of the evil one and assume all that we think; say and do are the will of God. We humans, in our sin and pride, have our opinions and it seems that one of the easiest things for us to do is to rationalize just about everything away, including sin. Sincerity is no substitute for truth and right. So it is important to us to seek the truth and examine all our thoughts and actions with regards to the Gospel directives and Church teaching, through prayer. When we do this, and we are in the state of grace, we may sometimes get a glimpse of the will of the Father, if we are trusting in His providence, because what’s happening in our lives is His will.
This examination often shines light on our failings because we are weak in our naturalness and of course there is the evil one to contend with. Examination can be difficult and painful to deal with. We all deal with temptation and sin, but this examination of our thoughts and actions in light of the Gospel message flushes sin to the surface. We can see how we have offended the One who loves us radically and allows us to make amends and go forward because Jesus has made provision for us, through the Holy Spirit, that he wouldn’t give us more than we can handle, if we are truly seeking His will in our life. The Catholic faith celebrates this directive from Jesus with the Sacrament of Holy Orders whereby Jesus gives his Apostles and their successors, bishops and priests, the power to forgive sin in and through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Early on in my Catholic journey, one of the difficult things that I chose to do to celebrate my Catholic faith was to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and it continues to be hard, but it has been one of the best steps to my deepening conversion because when I deal with this issue of examination of my thoughts and actions, it helps me realize how I have hurt the One that I love the most, Jesus. Many Catholics avoid this Sacrament because it is so humbling, but many do it regularly because of their love for God. My experience has been that this discipline of going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation has strengthened my confirmation because I can sense the growth of my love for God, as I respond to the graces He sends me from first, determining and then, confessing my sins with a contrite heart. I continue my growing knowledge that I am nothing without Him and that my very next breath is in His hands. The absolution, by the priest, on behalf of Christ, and the penance we complete add to the sense of peace that we receive from God and are continually life changing because it allows us to know that our sins are forgiven and forgotten, making the hard work of examination more than worth it, because it heals our relationship with God.
Although other Christian denominations don’t have this gift of The Sacrament of Reconciliation, they seek forgiveness of God in their daily prayers, as Catholics also do, when praying among other prayers, the Our Father prayer, which Jesus taught us; “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” I know that the Lord responds and forgives all that come to Him with a penitent heart, but I believe the fullness of forgiveness comes through the grace of this Sacrament and is attained by the absolution of our sins by the authority of Jesus, given to a priest by the Sacrament of Holy Orders within the Catholic Church. Of course I do, I’m Catholic, but I don’t discount the forgiveness that is available to those that come to Jesus with a penitent heart and ask for His forgiveness. Reconciliation with God, after sin, is a fundamental step in developing our love for God and He is always eager for all of us to say we are sorry.
Consistency of Commitment
One of the seven heavenly virtues is diligence and in this level of our love for God (consistency of commitment), we find the fruit of developing this virtue in that by persistent and hardworking effort of pursuing a greater love for God by confirmation and examination, we can add a richness to our love for God by a consistency of commitment. Notice again, how these levels of our love for God enhance the previous level. As we begin in earnest to develop the depth of our love for God, there are many times when we would rather be doing something other than working on our spiritual life, going to Mass, praying, etc. because of our naturalness, but making a decision to be consistent with whatever we are doing to improve our spiritual life pays dividends, just as perseverance does in all our other endeavors. And when we truly understand the value of such perseverance in our spiritual endeavors, like our time at Mass, prayer, examination, adoration, reconciliation, etc., we can truly testify that this is the “good stuff” of life because we are opening our lives to Christ more fully so that He can better commune with us and send us his graces so that we can strive to become all that He is calling us to be. We learn over time with a consistency of effort, that at some point, our time in prayer with the Lord is the preferred time.
Our Blessed Mother
To understand the value of a devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, as a way to deepen your relationship with God requires not only a love of scripture, but an understanding of the traditions of the Catholic faith in regards to Mary. I love the simplicity of the teaching of the Church regarding Mary, the mother of Jesus. As prophesied from Genesis, throughout the Old Testament, to the book of Revelations, a humble virgin, conceived without sin, becomes the new Eve and says yes to the exhortation by the angel Gabriel, that she was called by God to be the mother of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. She was there at Jesus side, throughout his life, much like our own mothers are, and shared not only in his joys but also his sorrow. When Jesus was on the cross and Mary, with John, was at the foot of the cross, we hear from Scripture, Jesus gives John to his mother and his Mother to John. In other words, Jesus gives us his Holy Mother to be our spiritual mother to help guide us to salvation. She shepherded the early Church and was assumed into heaven and resides close to her Son as Queen of Heaven, who in the end, conquers Satan.
In coming to a fuller understanding of Mary’s significance in salvation history, I have developed a relationship with the Blessed Mother where I ask her daily to pray for me, using the Rosary, a pray given to us by Mary, to contemplate our Lord’s life and a vehicle to pray for petitions. Our prayer through Mary to Jesus is magnified because of her blessedness, and our relationship with the Lord deepened. If there was one level of spiritual growth, other than the frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist that has propelled me to a deeper relationship with the Lord more than any other, it would have to be my flourishing relationship with His Holy Mother and praying a daily Rosary. I recommend developing this relationship with our Holy Mother as a means to deepen your love for God.
Frequent use of the sacraments
The whole point of this discussion is to reflect on our growth of our love for God and because I am Catholic, I can’t help but deliberate this through the eyes of a Catholic. If you are not Catholic and you are still reading this reflection, I would be surprised. I know non Catholics grow in their love for God as we do, but not necessarily through the means of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, although Protestant Christians do celebrate Baptism, Confirmation and Marriage within their communities. May I suggest that my non Catholic readers take a closer look at the teachings of the Catholic Church to find the fullness of these celebrations?
Remember the definition of a Sacrament is essentially a physical action, instituted by Christ, which determines a mysterious spiritual reality that affects our lives. All serious Christians want to live a supernatural life, so an important part of our development in growing our love for God is a frequent use of those Sacraments that are available to us through the Church and her priests. All of mankind couldn’t have imagined in our wildest thoughts what Jesus set up for us Christians in the development of the seven Sacraments within the Catholic Church, to do just that; live a supernatural life.
Bishop Fulton Sheen had a great explanation of what it’s like to live a natural life verses a supernatural life. It goes something like this: Imagine a three story house; the first floor is where the people who used their elementary sense of smell, touch, taste, sight, and sound lived. Although these people generally don’t recognize these as gifts from God, they limit their use of these senses to live in the physical world with little or no knowledge of a spiritual dimension or have no desire to know more than what they can sense. These people do not want to do the necessary work that is required of them to go to the second story or they are not aware that the house has additional levels to live in, so they are content to live on the first floor, using only their elementary senses.
The people on the second story of the house have developed their awareness of sense to include more than the elementary use of their senses to respond to life’s greater beauty in that they have become aware of the second floor’s existence and have the resources and the initiative to get up the stairs that allows them the ability to recognize and use God’s gifts of the mind to reason, promote science, recognize beauty, develop an appreciation for the arts and music, etc., although many believe that man alone is responsible for these gifts and like those on the first level have little or no recognition of God. Their response to God’s grace is limited by their belief systems and their inability to look beyond themselves and their environments to see what the people on the third floor can see and experience. They can’t find the way to the staircase to the third floor and are content to live at this level.
The recipients of sanctifying grace, the people who live on the third floor, although they enjoy the natural, material, and physical qualities of being human like those that lived on the first and second levels, also recognize a level of life more important than those of the natural life by responding to the inner being and believing in God. The Christians recognize that the soul exist for knowing, loving and serving God, and this life is the proving ground for eternal life, thereby allowing them to live a supernatural life. These recognize that God exist and they are not Him! They want to live as closely to God’s plan for their life as they can, so they experience God’s peace, joy and wonderment of life.
The people on the first and second levels of this house don’t know what it’s like to live on the third level because they have never been there and don’t know the difference in the quality of life lived at that level. They are seemingly happy where they choose to be, but they are missing the opportunity to living a successful life by God’s standards and are jeopardizing their salvation. Let us continue to pray for unrepentant sinners as well as our own souls because we should be like Saint Paul who said he was working out his salvation with fear and trembling.
Jesus gave His church the seven Sacraments, as tools if you will, to strain, to attain and hopefully maintain the supernatural life on the third floor and these tools are found in the Church Jesus founded over two thousand years ago. The seven Sacraments include Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, (these first three are the Sacraments of initiation), Holy Orders, Marriage, Anointing of the Sick, and Reconciliation. I believe that none of us could have ever devised such ingenious tools for the attainment of this supernatural life that he has in mind for us. The Sacraments are absolutely gifts from God to His people and frequent use of these gifts (tools), especially Eucharist and Reconciliation, are a means to allowing our love for God to flourish.
Receiving Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is a personal embrace of our Lord as He comes to us in a material and physical way. Only God himself could devise a way to be so intimately united to Him. His body and blood poured out for us in the re-presentation of His sacrifice on the Cross, at the hands and consecration of the priest, on the altar; this real food and drink, the embodiment of our Lord nourishes us with heavenly graces as we unite ourselves and our own sacrifices to our God. This is a great way to celebrate every day and to grow your love for God.
I recently read a statement about how we can love better and the author made this point; Open your heart more to God and let Jesus pour His love into you and then love with His love. At this point in my life I can’t imagine a better way to open our hearts to God and to love with His love than by receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. This sacrament is such a grace!
The graces received from the reception of all the Sacraments continue to mature within us even though we have received them only once, like Baptism and Confirmation. These Sacraments and the Holy Eucharist actually work synergistically; the graces received at Confirmation and from the worthy reception of the Eucharist enhance the graces received at Baptism and the graces of Baptism heighten the reception of the Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation. We will probably not know the full capacity of these graces until we stand before our Lord in Heaven.
Prayer is an encounter with the living God. Just like how we enjoy good conversation with our friends, prayer is that interaction with our best friend, God. We may not here Him talking to us verbally but we hear Him deep in our souls, in all places and at all times if we have cultivated this personal relationship with the Lord; especially in the celebration of the Mass, in the words and reflections of scripture and other spiritual readings. His words come to us in the form of ideas, desires, intentions, and resolutions that arise in our souls. When we communicate with Him, our understanding of life is deepened and our outlook is broadened. Heavenly conversation brings a clearer vision of the eternal glory which awaits us. The depth of prayer is limitless and the more we pray and have communion with God, the more we want to go deeper and spend this supernatural time with God. He never tires of us coming to Him. His light falls on prayerful hearts like seed falling on rich soil.
Scripture and Spiritual Reading
As I have alluded to throughout this discussion, we get direction from God himself on how to deepen our love for Him. Jesus founded His Church at Pentecost with the Apostle Peter as its head and formed His apostles and disciples to proclaim the Good News. For many years this proclamation was done by word of mouth, thereby forming the body of tradition that the Catholic Church holds to be valid truth and from whence the written word, the New Testament, originated. These truths are the basis of the teachings of Christian faith and the Catholic Church is the ultimate interpreter of the writings of the Saints, i.e., St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, and St. Paul and all the rest. Jesus promised to preserve His Church from error in her religious and moral teachings. The Church guides us by preventing us from misunderstanding His teachings like many Christians have done and are doing. Many are simply too proud to submit themselves to the Church’s teaching and their religion consists only of what they understand, or like, or find convenient, thereby perpetuating divisions within Christianity. God wants us to follow our conscience in our daily life, but not when it is contrary to the supernatural guidance from the Church.
Therefore when we are reading and contemplating the Bible with the guidance of the Holy Catholic Church, we are encountering God Himself. The more we hunger for God and let ourselves be immersed in the inspired Word of God, the more Christ like we will become. St. Jerome said “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Jesus Christ.” This is the importance the Church gives to the Bible. Reading, listening to, and contemplating Holy Scripture is mandatory in developing a deeper love of God.
Writings of other notable Saints and other souls who are on their way to Sainthood are also valuable resources for deepening our love for God. We can often identify with these people when we read their heartfelt experiences as they strive to live a life of holiness because we have the same issues going on in our lives as many of them. These readings often times allow us a better understanding, an insight, an awakening, or perhaps a conversion that will allow our love for God to deepen.
So, As I have reread this document about developing our love for God, I find that without any intention in doing so, I have basically reinterated the importance of a Sacramental life, from birth at Baptism to where I find myself now, in the autumn of my life, attending Mass and receiving the Holy Eucharist as often as I can. Stiving to develope my prayer life to the point of praying without ceasing, frequent reflections about my sinfulness and reconciliations with God, and daily spiritual readings, trying to love with God’s love. I can say I often fail as we all do, but we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and again pursue the great love of God and strive to become all He is calling us to be.
I hope that this reflection will help you on your journey to God.