Establish a personal relationship with God

I'm a moral theologian - a law and order girl. I have always been intrigued by the question of the rich young man: "What must I do?"

There is a real beauty to moral theology - a harmony that comes from living the way God wants us to, the way we were created to live.

But I have found that there is real danger in placing too much emphasis on moral theology. When we talk only about what we are supposed to do, we create the impression that our Catholic faith is primarily about living according to a set of rules, jumping through the appropriate hoops so that we can get to heaven.

And that, my friends, is not what Christianity - Catholic or otherwise - is all about.

Here's the deal: The heart of an active Catholic faith isn't the rules, it's the relationship. The God who created the heavens and the earth knows each one of us - intimately. He loves us more than we can possibly imagine. And He desires to be in a relationship with us - a personal, intimate communion. He wants us to turn to Him, to know Him, to hear Him. He wants to shower His love on us, to enlarge our hearts, to bring about what is absolutely best for us in our lives.

But He can't do that if we don't seek Him out, if we don't open the door to that relationship, if we don't make room for Him in our lives.

Why do I feel compelled to mention this in a Catholic publication? Well, because apparently we Catholics haven't been so good at getting the message out. A recent Pew research poll asked Catholics what they believe about God, and their answers were alarming. Only 60 percent of Catholics polled believe that God is a "personal God" or "other;" 29 percent said God is an "impersonal force"; 8 percent believe He is either "both personal and impersonal"; and 1 percent responded that they didn't believe in God at all.

Overall, when asked if they believed that God is a person with whom we can have a relationship, only 48 percent responded that they were absolutely certain this was true.

No wonder Mass attendance is dropping. Why bother losing valuable sleep on Sunday morning to worship an "impersonal force"?

I think that, even among those of us Catholics who do believe in a personal God, it is easy to slip from a "relationship" mentality to a "rules" mentality. Our catechesis may have revolved mostly around the "thou shalt nots." Not a lot of people around us actually talk about having a real relationship with God, and those who do frequently strike us as, well, perhaps less than entirely stable. (A conference organizer I met once described his day thusly: "Satan tried to blow my car up, but Jesus made me a real nice cup of coffee.")

I also think that we are sometimes suspicious of the whole thing, having been accosted by well-meaning but over-zealous Protestants demanding to know if we "have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." The implication, embraced by many, seems to be that as long as there is a relationship, we are free to disregard the rules. And that just seems too darned easy to us.

Here is the deal: God loves you. Crazy much. He created you, and He is head-over-heels in love with you. He desires that you know Him. He wants to pour His love into your heart. He knows, as only God can, what is absolutely best for you, and He wants you to trust Him to guide you to it.

He created you in such a way that you will only find true, lasting satisfaction and fulfillment in Him.

But He doesn't force any of it. He created us to be free and to freely choose whether we wish to avail ourselves of His loving care or not.

Of course, the rules matter. Rules matter in any relationship. You can't remain close to somebody while insisting on your right to constantly kick his cat, or steal his money, or mistreat his loved ones.

Fortunately, we have a God who knows our brokenness. Not only does He forgive our failings, but through our relationship of prayer and the sacramental life of the Church, He makes of us a "new creation," changing our hearts and actually making it easier to "follow the rules." That's why St. Paul said that, in Christ, we are no longer "under the law." We become transformed. It's no longer about following the rules, it's about loving the beloved. We don't avoid sin because we fear punishment. It loses its appeal to us because it is a violation of the relationship.

Want to learn more about what these relationships can look like? Read the lives of the saints. You will find them beautiful, dynamic and life-changing. You will also find that no two are the same, just as no two human relationships could be identical. You are unique, and your relationship with God will be uniquely yours.

How does it start? With prayer. Talk to Him. Invite Him in. Tell Him you want to know Him better. Read Scripture, where He reveals Himself to us. Receive the sacraments prayerfully. Visit Him in the Blessed Sacrament. Create silence in your life, so that He can be heard above the noise. Seek competent spiritual direction if it's available to you. Pray some more. Stick with it.

And then, take G.K. Chesterton's advice and "Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair."

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We're On a Mission from God and Real Love.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014