Principles of Catholic Morality III: Bernard on Loving God

Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God is so short and beautifully written that one is tempted to just copy and paste the whole thing.  Bernard distinguishes four degrees of love, the first being self-love, and the other three ascending degrees of love for God.  Letting Bernard summarize his own scheme:

Nevertheless, since we are carnal and are born of the lust of the flesh, it must be that our desire and our love shall have its beginning in the flesh. But rightly guided by the grace of God through these degrees, it will have its consummation in the spirit: for that was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual (I Cor. 15.46). And we must bear the image of the earthy first, before we can bear the image of the heavenly. At first, man loves himself for his own sake. That is the flesh, which can appreciate nothing beyond itself. Next, he perceives that he cannot exist by himself, and so begins by faith to seek after God, and to love Him as something necessary to his own welfare. That is the second degree, to love God, not for God’s sake, but selfishly. But when he has learned to worship God and to seek Him aright, meditating on God, reading God’s Word, praying and obeying His commandments, he comes gradually to know what God is, and finds Him altogether lovely. So, having tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is (Ps. 34.8), he advances to the third degree, when he loves God, not merely as his benefactor but as God. Surely he must remain long in this state; and I know not whether it would be possible to make further progress in this life to that fourth degree and perfect condition wherein man loves himself solely for God’s sake.

Note that, while the four loves are distinct, they are not made antagonistic to each other.  A lower degree of love naturally leads to a higher degree.  Bernard seems to me wiser (I would say “pastorally” wiser, were that not such a tainted word) than many since his day who tend to disparage imperfect love of God, making the perfect the enemy of the good, as if weak or selfish love were an obstacle rather than a step toward better love.  Unlike the spiritual elitists, Bernard has kind words for petitionary prayer:

So then in the beginning man loves God, not for God’s sake, but for his own. It is something for him to know how little he can do by himself and how much by God’s help, and in that knowledge to order himself rightly towards God, his sure support. But when tribulations, recurring again and again, constrain him to turn to God for unfailing help, would not even a heart as hard as iron, as cold as marble, be softened by the goodness of such a Savior, so that he would love God not altogether selfishly, but because He is God? Let frequent troubles drive us to frequent supplications; and surely, tasting, we must see how gracious the Lord is (Ps. 34.8). Thereupon His goodness once realized draws us to love Him unselfishly, yet more than our own needs impel us to love Him selfishly: even as the Samaritans told the woman who announced that it was Christ who was at the well: ‘Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the savior of the world’ (John 4.42). We likewise bear the same witness to our own fleshly nature, saying, ‘No longer do we love God because of our necessity, but because we have tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is’. Our temporal wants have a speech of their own, proclaiming the benefits they have received from God’s favor.

As for the ascent from the second to the third degree of love, it would probably be a mistake to apply the eros/agape distinction here.  Unselfish love of God motivated by His intrinsic goodness is certainly a new element in the third degree.  But the third degree also means a perfection of one’s erotic love of God.  Loving God “for His own sake” can mean pure, disinterested appreciation and devotion, but it can also mean that one desires unity with God as an end in itself, i.e. eros.  This is like how one can say that a man with an erotic love of a woman loves her “for her own sake” in the sense that marital union with her is the good he desires in itself, as opposed to another man who wants to marry her for her money.  From Bernard’s descriptions, it’s clear he means both appreciative and erotic love.  In the fourth degree, agape has clearly come to dominate, but Bernard–realistic as ever–thinks this kind of love very rare this side of the resurrection.  (His own love of God, he assures us, falls far short of this.)

For the Christian, love is not only God’s due and man’s happiness; it is God’s very nature, the “eternal law” of both God and his creation:

Nor is it improper to say that even God lives by law, when that law is the law of love. For what preserves the glorious and ineffable Unity of the blessed Trinity, except love? Charity, the law of the Lord, joins the Three Persons into the unity of the Godhead and unites the holy Trinity in the bond of peace. Do not suppose me to imply that charity exists as an accidental quality of Deity; for whatever could be conceived of as wanting in the divine Nature is not God. No, it is the very substance of the Godhead; and my assertion is neither novel nor extraordinary, since St. John says, ‘God is love’ (I John 4.8). One may therefore say with truth that love is at once God and the gift of God, essential love imparting the quality of love. Where the word refers to the Giver, it is the name of His very being; where the gift is meant, it is the name of a quality. Love is the eternal law whereby the universe was created and is ruled. Since all things are ordered in measure and number and weight, and nothing is left outside the realm of law, that universal law cannot itself be without a law, which is itself. So love though it did not create itself, does surely govern itself by its own decree.

One Response

  1. As a sort of historical footnote, it is worth noting that part of Abbé de Rancé’s reform of La Trappe was the restoration of authentic Cistercian spirituality, as exemplified in the life and teaching of St Bernard. De Rancé also stressed St Bernard’s apostolic zeal and he was himself a noted retreat master and spiritual director.

    Now, Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, the tutor of the Dauphin and the greatest preacher of the 17th century always made his annual retreat with de Rancé and corresponded with him regularly. Perhaps, we can see in Bossuet’s opposition to the Quietist errors he detected in Mme Guyon’s writings and in Fénelon’s “Explication des Maximes des Saints” the influence of St Bernard’s teaching on the Fourth Love.

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