Anyone who reads novels or watches films of a certain distant date knows that there is one expression that had back then a sense rather different from the sense it has now. “Make love,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meant to “pay amorous attention; to court, woo.” Use the expression now, and it will be immediately understood as referring to sexual relations. That’s quite a distance, from chaste courting to intercourse! We Christians are only too aware (and I mean the “too”!) of how carnal the meaning of the word love, even by itself, has become.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord tells us to love him with “all our heart,” along with all our soul and all our mind (22:37). Now, does he mean this literally? After all, the heart is a physical, bodily organ. Does he mean that we are to love him with our bodies, or is the word heart only a symbol of our spiritual soul and its attachment to God?
Some Scripture scholars insist that Our Lord’s words are simply saying the same thing in three different ways: that to love God with our heart, soul, and mind means the same thing in each case. That’s true if what they mean is that loving God with the whole of any part of our being means loving him with the whole of every other part, but it’s not true if what they mean is that there is no difference to distinguish heart and soul and mind. There is, and it is a very great and instructive and ultimately consoling difference.
The Fathers and Doctors of the Church always assumed that when different words are used, they are meant to convey distinct meanings to enrich the discourse. This is true of Matthew 22:37, a passage that is all important, as it presents the essence of Our Lord’s teaching.
St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Chrysostom show us that to love God with our whole heart does in fact mean that we are meant to love God with a bodily, physical love, but perhaps in a sense different from what we usually infer from these words.
Aquinas, the greatest of the Doctors of the Church, interprets today’s passage:
There is a twofold principle of love: for love can come about by passion or by the judgment of reason: out of passion when a man does not even know how to live without the thing he loves, and by reason insofar as he loves as reason dictates. He says therefore that he loves with his whole heart who loves with his flesh, and he loves with his soul who loves by the judgment of reason. And we ought to love God in both ways: with our flesh as the heart is moved with feeling for God in our flesh, whence it says in Psalm 83:3: “My heart and my flesh have exulted in the living God.”
For St. Thomas, loving God with our whole heart means that our love for him is felt even in our flesh; it is not purely or solely a spiritual matter. To love out of passion, or emotion, or feeling in this case, means that the love is, so to speak, instinctive and direct—like the love of a man for his own bodily life and the nourishment necessary to sustain it, or for his spouse and their life together and bodily union that begets new life, or for the presence of a friend who consoles him in solitude and works with him.
These are the loves of a man on the level of passion or feeling, the love of one who “does not even know how to live without the thing he loves.” So our love of God is meant also to be of this kind—not purely spiritual, but physical and instinctive.
And yet we all know, if we have any experience of the struggles of the Christian life, that physical and instinctive desires are also the ones that often lead us astray into sinful or self-deceiving behavior. So often those physical needs make us forgetful of God and neglectful of prayer. They even lead us to sin. So how can those same powers of our bodily experience be a way to love God “with all our heart” bodily, when they seem to draw us away from him?
For an answer, let’s listen to what St. John Chrysostom has to say in his homilies on the Gospel according to St. Matthew:
The love of the heart is one thing, the love of the soul another. The love of the heart is in some sense carnal, that we should love God even carnally, which we cannot do unless we draw apart from the love of worldly things. Therefore the love of the heart is felt in the heart. The love of the soul, however, is not felt, but understood, since it consists in the judgment of the soul.
So, as you might have guessed, there is a catch: to love God in a “carnal” or bodily way means to “draw apart from the love of worldly things” on the level of the body. But this is not just in order to leave the body behind, but rather to give the body a new and deeper way of loving than by food or sex or company. Yes, this means some fasting, or a little lack of sleep in order to pray, or abstaining from relations with our spouse, or keeping a silent retreat . This is not just so that our soul can do its spiritual work, but also that our body can worship and love God in its own way.
Recently I had the grace of making the pilgrimage to Loch Derg in Donegal, Ireland. On the island called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” thousands of Catholics (and some non-Catholics) make the penitential pilgrimage consisting of a grueling lack of sleep, bare feet on sharp stones, constant vocal prayer, and rigorous fasting. I am no great ascetic, but the experience gave me the insight that such penance is simply the body’s way of praying, of loving God. Self-control and bodily penance are not only ways to free the soul to know and love God; they are also the way in which the body asserts its own right to love and know God on its own level.
This is a powerful thing. It destroys the remnants of sin in us, increases humility of heart, and draws us closer to the loving heart of Jesus.
Yes! Here is the real proof that our love for God is also meant to be physical: the Sacred Heart of the Son of God. There is no doubt that in the Church’s Magisterium, it is the physical, corporeal heart of God’s Son that is the object of adoration—not just as a symbol, but as the organ of his natural love for us.
By showing us his heart, wounded by the sins of each of us, he shows us that the words of Aquinas apply to him first of all—namely, “he does not even know how to live without the thing he loves.” That is, he lives for love of us, and his physical and now glorious heart burns with love for the Father and for us, and so for our sake fulfills the commandment of love.
What more do we need to give him our poor hearts? Let us go to him, even in our bodies, with confidence. He awaits the banquet, the bridal chamber, the company of our love!
 A thought: how many guys who are good friends have ever thought of taking a retreat together, where they relate not to each other, but to God? Granted, a long hike in the country, with not too much talking, might be similar. Friends are best friends when their friendship is grounded in the power of God.