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Catholic Spiritual Direction

How can I learn to love God more fully? – Part II of II

February 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Loving God

Dear Father John, I feel confused. I want to keep growing in my love for God. I want to learn to love him “with all my Mary Margaretheart, soul, mind, and strength,” just as he commands us to do. But I don’t know what that means. Can you help me?

In our first post answering this question, we explored the general meaning of the Greatest Commandment. Now we are ready to look at its different parts. The first arena of love that Jesus points out is the “heart.” In all three New Testament versions of this Greatest Commandment, heart is always first on the list. 

What Is “the Heart”?

The Sacred Scriptures use this term more than a thousand times, but never to refer simply to the biological organ. The term always has a fuller, more complete and more spiritual cache. With so many appearances, the word can’t help but take on a variety of connotations, yet the core meaning always remains the same. The heart refers to the deepest center of the person, the irreplaceable and irreducible “I” of the unique human individual. All the other powers of human nature flow from and depend on the heart. A person can say, “my feelings, my decisions, my hopes, my desires, my thoughts….” But all of those possessions belong to someone: the heart is the biblical term that encompassed the very identity of the possessor.

The Catechism explores the rich and evocative meaning of this term in its discussion of prayer, and the mysterious origin of prayer.  It is worth quoting the entire paragraph:

According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays… The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant (CCC 2562-2563).

This is the heart. Jesus commands his followers to love him, in the first place, with all their heart. What does this mean?

The Treasure Hunt

Jesus gives us a revealing clue in another one of his discourses, when he says, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21). A treasure is what we value most, what we desire most, what we set our sights on attaining or maintaining. To love God with all our heart, therefore, means to make God – communion with him, friendship with him – into the overarching goal of our lives. It means making our relationship with God the true north of our lives; our every decision, every desire, every hope and dream, every interpersonal interaction is evaluated, lived, and developed in light of that fundamental, orienting relationship. Anything that may damage my relationship with God must be cut away or re-dimensioned, especially sin and sinful habits. Whereas anything that harmonizes with or may enhance my relationship with God is welcomed and integrated more and more fully into my life.

A football team has one overarching goal: to win the championship. All the decisions made by the coaches and players are made with that in mind. All the activities they engage in, all the sacrifices they make, all the intermediate objectives and challenges, are seen and dealt with in light of that goal. That goal is the ultimate source of the entire team’s dynamism, effort, and yearnings. St. Paul draws a parallel between this kind of all-encompassing, athletic treasure hunt, and a Christian’s hunt for greater and greater intimacy with Christ here on earth, and definitive, total communion forever in heaven:

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

What Do You Want?

Loving God with all our heart means wanting, above everything else, to grow continually in our communion with him, our friendship with him. In a heart that is loving God fully, every other desire is subordinated to and harmonized with that overarching desire, and so every experience, circumstance, and activity serves to bring us into a deeper knowledge of closeness to God. This is why Jesus was able to assure us, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).

In the end, we get what we want. If we truly want God, if our heart is set on pursuing God, on seeking him, on living in a deeper and deeper communion with him, God will not deny us that treasure (which is called heaven) – after all, that’s what he created us for (“Seek, and you will find,” he promised in Matthew 7:7). But if we persistently prefer to seek our fulfillment in something else, in some idol, whether it be other relationships, achievements, or pleasures, leaving communion with God as a secondary concern, or as no concern at all, God will honor our choice. In that case, the purpose for which we were created – living in communion with God – will be everlastingly frustrated, and this is called hell.

C.S. Lewis put it simply and eloquently in his masterpiece, The Great Divorce, referring to Our Lord’s own promise: “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” (Mathew 7:7-8):

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.[1]

A Christ-Centered Fundamental Orientation

Now we are ready to give a specific answer to the question, what does it mean to love God with all our heart? Loving God with all one’s heart simply means making God – an increasing communion with him, an ever-deepening friendship with him – the highest priority and guiding principle of one’s life.  It is love seen as the fundamental desire, the fundamental orientation of one’s life.

When Jesus began his public ministry with a call to conversion, this is what he was getting at. By announcing that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” he was pointing out that in him, God-become-man, full communion with God was now truly possible. God has made himself one of us, so that we can enter into a real friendship with him. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Before Jesus, God was close to his people, but it was a closeness always mediated by something: by creation, by his revelation and his commandments, by his prophets.

In Jesus, who is truly God and truly Man, God’s closeness has taken a definitive turn, and we can love God with all our heart truly, through a fully human relationship with the eternal God, through knowing and following the Son. All it takes is a leaving behind of any idols, any fundamental desire that can’t be subordinated to or harmonized with the desire to live in communion with God: “Repent, and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:15).

Loving God will all our heart means giving a Christ-centered fundamental orientation to our lives.  The other three arenas of our love for God – soul, strength, and mind – show us how to follow that orientation in every sector of our daily activity.


[1] (Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 75). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.)

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QJPSTEVMQAO3LALLJEHDGQTXOI Teresa

    In this day in age it is hard to love God with your whole heart soul mind and body. It’s hard enough to give God your full attention. I know in order to have a morning of prayer I have to leave my apartment because my husband has the TV on loud that I can’t even think I have to use head phones but a lot of times I wind up leaving. This is a common problem I am sure with others. The better part has helped me to focus and center on the word of God and take something with me everyday that will help me love God. If God was to state how he views my heart and soul. It would be “well she is trying” The desire and motivation is there so it’s a start. Thank you Fr John for your post and Insight. I love the book the better part.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Thank you Father for making clear the statement, ” to live for God” in a way that is both
    profound and practical.  Being frail humans we fail throughout the day when we forget
    or fail to follow through on our intention to “live for God”. I find two things that help in
    my daily schedule: (1) to begin each day with a morning prayer to offer to God all that
    is in my day and (2) a prayer to my Guardian Angel to remind me to try my best to be
    mindful each moment how precious each moment is toward my goal of living for God.
    I have a little print out from Catherine Doherty on my desk that helps:
                                     THE DUTY OF THE MOMENT
    The duty of the moment is what you should be doing at any given time, in whatever
    place God has put you. You may not have Christ in a homeless person at your door,
    but you may have a little child.  If you have a child, your duty of the moment may be
    to change a dirty diaper. So you do it. But you don’t just change that diaper, you change
    it to the best of your ability, with great love for both God and that child…..There are all
    kinds of good things you can do, but whatever they are you have to realize there is always
    the duty of the moment. And it must be done because the duty of the moment is the duty of
    God.
    I think this says beautifully and practically how we can make God the priority of our life.
    Mother Teresa and Blessed John Paul II lived their lives giving great example of the
    duty of the moment. There are many without their fame I know who live or lived their
    lives this way and are just as great an example. We should look for them in our lives
    and thank God for putting them on our daily path as reminders.

  • LizEst

    Thank you, Father John, for this wonderfully written response.

    Appearing on this site the morning after the Super Bowl, your sports analogy is most appropriate and welcome.  How much teams focus on getting to that game!  What preparation!  What testing and grueling battles they face!  It’s about the W, the win!  For us, Christ has already won the victory.  All we need to do is give our Fiat and say “yes” and live that out in our lives, according to God’s will for us. 

    Few things are sadder than to watch a beloved friend or family member die who either has no faith, has not practiced their faith in years or has rejected God.  We pray God’s mercy for such, “Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.”

    Our loving God, the source of all good, does not violate our free will even though He knows what is best for us.  Let us then choose Him now in freedom, heeding the words of Scripture:  “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8).

  • Diane

    Beautiful response to the question. When I was at early mass this morning I found myself   asking God what I was doing there, as it has been a trying past few weeks and I was feeling very worn.  My morning prayer was for my family’s health and others in our situation. But my personal prayer was to be closer to Him, to have the strength and trust to keep following Him because I do love Him. I just want to stay close. This response clarified my prayer and gave me so much comfort. Thanks.

  • judeen

     heart… when God comes to us . as saints tell.. God raises a person up from the heart.. as it is raised to be closer to Him… as Jesus Heart and ours are united… drawn near to each other…. I wondered if this is where the soul lives with in the heart… it is where our life dwells… for anything in our body goes.. but it is in the heart we get air in our blood and is pumped all through us… is that what we want God to do.. God pumped all through us with life giving love from Him… He is our air.. our food .. He subsains us… we cant live with out Him… He is our beating heart.. ..for every life beating heart says I love you…. I love you…. forever…..

  • Charlie Brown

    THis is just an excellent teaching.  

  • John Carmichael

    Thank you Father! Powerful, scripture based teaching that runs clear and deep. Blessings!

  • Joan

    Thank you Father John !   Your teaching has hit the mark.  I felt like you knew what I feel, & expressed it so clearly.   Your answer brought tears more than once, and a great YES.

  • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

    Beautiful answer and clear explanation of a rather complex reality.  As usual, I come late on this Post……what do I comment after reading this 2nd Post, Father John?  Recently I found myself called to say this Prayer often, in the morning,  during the day and especially at the Hour of Great Mercy, during the Holy Personal Offering of myself, everyone and everything with Jesus as He offers Himself to His Father during Consecration, before going to sleep and even when I wake up severally during the night when I pray holding the Divine Mercy Image on my Bedside Mirror. 

    “My Merciful Jesus, have pity on me. Hear my humble Prayer.  I beg You to set my Heart free from the bondage of Pride, Arrogance, Egotism and Self-Love”.

    Where did I get this Prayer? I do not know.  It just came into my mind one day recently and I have found myself having it floating in mind any time I begin to pray.  I pondered on why it had come to me and I have yet to understand what it is all about. So, I have adopted it.  Your explanation of what the Biblical meaning of the Heart is, makes me begin having a rough idead of what I have been praying for, knowing that without Him, I can do NOTHING

  • Camila Malta

    This is great stuff!

  • Eric Munro

    The “desire to love God more fully is … the most precious gift that God can give to a human heart”.
    Beautifully stated.
    [Thanks Eric – Please read our FAQ to learn more about the spirituality we promote here – Pax Christi]