What is love? One challenge to finding an answer is that “love” covers a diversity of dispositions. The phrases “I love chocolate” and “I love you” use the same verb, but loving a person is, one hopes, something more durable and substantive than a love of chocolate.
Such examples underline that loving persons is the most challenging and important kind of love, and it is the supernatural version of this love that is the theological virtue of love. In Christianity, this love is not only the form and summit of all Christian virtues but is also ascribed to the very substance of God: St John tells us, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
But what is this love? St Thomas Aquinas describes it most generally as friendship and associates this love with two essential and interconnected desires: for the good of the other, and for union or communion with the other.
In the case of the supernatural love for heaven, the desire for God’s will to be done coincides with the desire for communion with God. These desires are ecstatic, insofar as they take us out of ourselves, involving choices that one would not make in the absence of love. Hence love is inseparably associated with sacrifice: parents for children; children for parents; friends for one another; husbands for wives and wives for husbands; God for us and ourselves for God.
How then do we acquire this divine love? The answer, I think, is by patiently cultivating union with God, who is love. This is done principally by the reception of the sacraments and daily prayer, combined with study, works of mercy, and avoiding the spiritual adultery of sin.
God, in his mercy, may then bring us to that state in which our souls begin to melt with the divine fire of the Holy Spirit.
Fr Andrew is in the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford