We were waiting for a table at Bickford’s, a very rare post-mass breakfast out with the family. I was probably only six or seven years old, but I vividly remember the smell of pancakes, my sisters and I huddled in the restaurant entryway in our winter coats. There was much more than syrup on my mind that morning, and I was tense. I had to crane my neck to look up at my mother. Tugging on her coat and pulling her down to me, I whispered:
“Mom, how do you know if you love God?”
I was worried. The First Commandment had been a major theme of the homily that morning, all about loving God with your whole heart, soul, and mind. It was important, I could tell, even at my young age. Yet, I didn’t feel love for God at all, and I was scared I was messing up in a big, eternal way. But, how could I love God, really? I didn’t even know him.
This was a high-stakes moment for my mother. Truthfully, I don’t know what I would have answered had I been in her shoes, but my Mom’s answer has delighted and impressed the many priests, nuns, and spiritual authorities who’ve heard the story since that winter morning.
“Oh, honey,” she replied. “Just the fact that you’re asking that question, and that you care so much about the answer means that you do love God.”
I was so relieved. Surely, I had dodged a bullet. Not loving God didn’t seem like an option in my Catholic-Christian, little kid universe, and I was a conflict-averse rule-follower even then. If worrying equalled love, I was all set.
In the years that followed, I have struggled with what loving God really looks like. I always told my religious education students that you love God by loving His people, but that’s really second commandment territory, to be fair. When you ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself’, you can see that neighbor, and feed them, and hug them. Loving God with your whole heart, soul, and mind must be something altogether different. Even as a grown up, it’s sometimes hard to love an invisible God.
I have talked to God, experienced God, and been thankful to God. I have studied God. I have sung for God, and served God. I have asked for so much stuff from God, and received some along with some stuff that was even better than what I asked for. I have understood some of how God works. I have heard from God. I have found God in scripture, nature, and in the eyes of people around me. I have been astounded by God, and I’ve been confounded, too. I have written letters to God, and yelled at Him, and sat with Him, and even ran with Him. But, love? It’s hard to say.
It wasn’t until I was on my knees, past the limits of myself, that I started to understand how I might one day be able to love God with all of my heart, soul, and mind. I can begin to love an invisible God because in my desperate need, I feel Him loving me, coming in and comforting me, and sending people to me with words and actions of much-needed encouragement. He’s working for me. He is for me, and He loves me, just as I am. Anything I might do in return is a feeble response to that Big Love, but I see how He’s healing my broken heart, saving my shattered soul, and calming my overactive, worried mind with His promises, hope, and grace. How could I not love Him with the parts of me that He is restoring in a way I never could? Heart, soul, and mind, He is mine and I am His.
In this upside-down, chaotic world, we can move past all of the stuff God could give us, and use the valley times to go after the very heart of God. I am beginning to suspect we’ll find much more than we first knew was possible, and what we find may even be miraculous. Maybe we’ll finally have eyes to see an invisible God, the One who loved us in the first place, and love the wholeness of Him in return.