In his essay, On Loving God, St. Bernard of Clairvaux points toward a spiritual theme of journey and self-knowledge. By doing so, he describes four degrees of love.
In the first degree, man loves himself for his own sake. Here, Bernard laments that “since we are carnal and born of carnal desire, it is unavoidable that our desire and love should begin with the body and if it is rightly directed, it will then proceed by grace through certain stages, until the spirit is fulfilled.” (XV.39) Within this first state, man serves nature and pursues a bodily love that Bernard notes “will cease to be satisfied in the narrow channel.” (VIII.23) As such, man necessarily finds himself struggling for meaning within a material world where more is necessarily an improvement over his prior reality. By his adherence to the first precept (to pursue that which is good) of the Natural Law, man attempts to pilot his aircraft via visual-flight rules. Nevertheless, his attempts to share his material abundance with neighbors, while noble, will ultimately fail to bring about a true and perfect justice. As Bernard writes: “To love one’s neighbor with perfect justice, it is necessary to be prompted by God. How can you love your neighbor with purity if you do not love him in God? God brings about your love for him, just as he causes other goods.” (VIII.25)
In the second degree, man loves God for his own good. At this juncture, man moves toward an understanding that “seeds of faith” have been given him and “that he cannot be the author of his own existence.” (XV.39) In developing an awareness that God is not only the author of life, but also his protector, there is a shift. Man begins to recognize God.
In the third degree, man loves God for God’s sake. In describing this love as chaste and trusting, Bernard recalls the Psalmist (33:9). As man tastes and sees the goodness of the Lord, he is moved toward a deeper form of love and begins to detach himself from his former finite understanding of love. By trusting in the Lord because He is good (Ps 117:1), “we love God for God’s sake and not our own.” (IX.26)
In the fourth degree, man loves himself for the sake of God. According to St. Bernard, this “…seems impossible. If anyone has experience of it, let him say so. But I have no doubt that that is how it will be when the good and faithful servant is led into the joy of his Lord (Mt 25:21) and intoxicated by the riches of the house of God (Ps 35:9).” (XV.39) As St. Paul declares: “If we have known Christ according to the flesh, we have not known him.” (1 Cor 5:16) Furthermore, “No one knows himself according to the flesh, for flesh and blood will not possess the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 15:50) At this, St. Bernard exclaims that “our weak human affections will be changed into divine affections.” (XV.39)
We might ask, just what do these stages of love say about our own spiritual journey? According to Bernard, if it is our desire to enter into a deeper relationship with God, we must be willing to abandon those things which inhibit our full, genuine, and loving communion with Him. Perhaps certain words from the Lord’s Prayer might assist us: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In thinking about these, we should ask ourselves whether it is truly our desire to conform our will to God’s will? By a pointed question, it is though St. Bernard shoots an arrow into our hearts: “How often do we invite Christ to become a frequent guest—within us?” (III.9)
Today, nearly one-thousand years after his death, what does St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) have to say to our increasingly secularized and “non-spiritual” culture that proclaims to understand the meaning of love? Plenty.
“The generation which did not discipline its heart and whose spirit is not in good credit with God (Ps 77:8), but which hopes instead in unreliable riches (1 Tim 6:17), feels oppressed by the story of the Cross (1 Cor 1:18), and thinks it burdensome to remember the Passion. How will it ever bear the weight of His words when it actually hears them: ‘Go, you who are accursed, into everlasting fire, which is prepared for the devil and his angels.’ (Mt 25:41) This stone will crush him on whom it falls.” (Mt 21:44) (IV.11)