“Ask a Priest: How Can I Know What Love Is?”

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Q: I have trouble understanding heaven. Will we be happy in heaven just because we are in the presence of God? – that is, in the presence of somebody we “love”? If so, then why aren’t we absolutely happy when we are with our family and friends? I’m 24 and single, so this question came to mind. I believed in God but never really followed him until a year ago. Because of the life that I have lived, I have never been able to truly love anything or anyone or have passion. I have never felt love as love is supposed to be. I was in a Catholic school as a child, and very early on bullying destroyed the kid that I once was. I would say it probably robbed me of my opportunity to seek for God up until this point. How can I love God if I don’t even know what love is? – F.B.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I’m sorry to hear about the bullying you endured as a child. That was not part of God’s plan for you.

The long-term effects of bullying can include having difficulty in establishing trusting, reciprocal relationships. This in turn can make love harder to experience.

Nevertheless, God created you out of love. You are made to be loved and to love.

So, what is love?

Love, or charity, is a theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.

A fuller treatment could be found in Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “Love”:

“[A]ny strong affection, closeness, or devotion to things or persons. The Greeks distinguished four types of love: storge, philia, eros, and agape.

Storge, familial love, is a word for the bond that exists between one who loves and persons, animals, and the things that surround him. It is compatible with quite a bit of taken-for-grantedness or even of hatred at times.

Philia pertains to friends, freely chosen because of mutual compatibility and common values.

Eros is passion, not only of a sexual nature, but also of an aesthetic or spiritual nature, for what is conceived of as supremely beautiful and desirable.

“Agapic love is manifested when one person has much to give to another more needy. It is generous self-donation without concern for reward.

“Such distinctions become especially important in discernments about marriage, because the strength of eros love may blind one to the absence of the types of love needed to experience a good Christian bond that, with God’s grace, can endure ‘till death do us part.’”

God is love (1 John 4:8), and being made in his image (Genesis 1:27), we need, reflect and experience various kinds of love in this world.

None of our earthly loves will ever totally satisfy us – deep down we seek a perfect love, which only God can give. So, it’s no surprise that family and friends come up short. Only the love we experience in heaven will totally fill us.

The key here is not to think that the limited love we experience in this world is what we would have for eternity in heaven. Heaven will be far, far greater.

Now, much of the above might seem too abstract, too theoretical. If you want to experience love, it would be good to start giving love as best you can.

That is, start to reach out to the people around you. Help others where they are. Give an ear to the lonely. Feed the poor. Visit shut-ins. Offer to do volunteer work at your parish.

For we learn to love by loving. As you put others first in your life, you will discover your own capacity for love. Your heart will grow.

You referred in passing to “the life that I have lived.” Perhaps you realize that there are aspects of your life that need changing.

For that, it helps to have a model. The model for perfect love is Jesus. He “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38), and his death on a cross for our redemption speaks volumes about true love, which is self-giving.

To follow him, it helps to have a solid prayer life and sacramental life, and to embrace the opportunities that come along each day to do good for others.

The resources on RC Spirituality might help you in your prayer life. Also helpful might be Father John Bartunek’s book The Better Part.

Solid prayer can transform our hearts, giving God a chance to heal whatever is impeding us from experiencing and accepting his love and in turn surprising us by the amount of love we are capable of.

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