St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) was a monk who was very influential in his day and has been ever since. Even the Protestant Reformers, including John Calvin and Martin Luther, looked back on his writings with fondness and respect. Among his most popular writings is a treatise called On the Love of God. There, we find a wonderful little document examining the why’s and how’s of loving God. Early on, he describes four levels (or degrees) of loving God. Let’s take a look at them.
The 1st Degree: Loving Yourself For Your Own Sake (Selfish Love)
The love of self, as St. Bernard observes, “is not imposed by a command but it is implanted in nature, for who ‘ever hated his own flesh?’ (Eph. 5:29). But truly if this love, natural as it is, begins to be too precipitate or too lavish and is not at all satisfied with the riverbed of necessity, overflowing rather widely, it will be seen to invade the fields of pleasure. At once its overflow is held in check by the commandment that opposes itself to it: ‘You shall love your neighbors as yourself’ (Matt. 22:39).”
We need to be awakened to love for God by hearing his commands and observing his acts of love toward us. As Psalm 146 puts it, “You [God] open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” St. Bernard continues, “There is no doubt, surely, that He who is not absent in the midst of plenty will gladly be present in the time of need. He says ‘Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and these other things will be given to you besides’ (Luke 12:32). He promises that He will, of His own accord, give whatever is necessary to him who restricts himself in superfluities and loves his neighbor.
This twofold work of God’s law (restricting our sinfulness) and God’s grace (tugging at our heart) brings us to the second degree of love.
The 2nd Degree: Loving God for Your Own Blessing (Dependence on God)
St. Bernard describes the second degree as loving “God but still for a time for one’s own sake, not for God’s. It is, however, a sort of prudence to know what you are able to do by yourself, and what you are able to do with God’s help, and to preserve yourself guiltless for Him who keeps you unharmed.”
There is a dynamic of struggle that seems to characterize this stage of love for God. On one hand, you have willfully committed yourself to loving God, yet you realize that you aren’t able to love God with all your heart. You see that you never measure up, you always fall short, and you need God’s help just to hang on, let alone to grow in love.
Our progress through this second degree love, comes from frequent time spent before God. Especially in the worship of the Church, where we receive Christ through His Word & Sacrament, we “taste and see how good is the Lord” (Psalm 34:9). And, as St. Bernard says, “when once His sweetness has been tasted, it draws us to the pure love of God more than our need impels.”
The 3rd Degree: Loving God for God’s Own Sake (Intimacy with God)
“Just as in the case of the Samaritans who said, speaking to the women who had announced that the Lord had come, ‘We no longer believe because of your word, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is the Savior of the world’ (John 4:42), similarly, I say, we too, following their example, speaking to our flesh we may justly say: We now love God, not from your necessity; for we ourselves have tasted and know how sweet is the Lord.”
The witness of our own hearts, minds, and bodies, that we need God for everything, including loving Him properly, is a basic witness that gets us started, but it is the grace of God Himself that lifts us from the second degree of love, characterized by dependence on God, to the third degree of love, characterized rather by intimacy. 1 Peter 1:22 says, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again… through the living and abiding word of God.” This sincere and earnest love, loving God for the sake of God alone, is beyond our natural ability; it comes only through the rebirth given by the Holy Spirit.
St. Bernard gives an interesting description of this third degree of love. “This love is deservedly acceptable because it is disinterested – not offered with a view to obtaining more favors.” ‘Disinterested’ love highlights that love has no agenda. This level of love no longer seeks gain from God, but only to enjoy Him. “Give praise to the Lord, for He is good,” Psalm 118 begins. It doesn’t say God is good to me; God just is good.
The 4th Degree: Self-Love for God’s Sake (Being United with God’s Love)
And yet there is a more perfect way, St. Bernard describes. “Happy is he who has deserved to attain as high as the fourth degree where a man does not love even himself except for the sake of God.” This doesn’t mean we cease to care about our own existence, exactly, nor does it presume that we somehow become so important to God that he needs us. Rather, the love of God becomes our everything. Perhaps some quotes from Scripture can help describe this.
1 Corinthians 6:17, 19-20a “But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him… do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”
Psalm 73:25-26 “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Proverbs 16:4 “God has made all things for Himself.”
Our prayer will be “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
St. Bernard also argues, “Otherwise, how will ‘God be all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28) if in man there is left anything at all of himself? The substance, indeed, will remain, but in another form, another glory, another power. Man’s human nature and individual identity will remain, transfigured.” When will all this happen? Is it even possible in this life? St. Bernard believed that this fourth degree of love “will not come to pass with perfect fulfillment… until the heart itself is no longer compelled to think about the body, and the soul ceases to have to attend to quickening the body and to providing it with sense-perception, and the body’s strength freed from vexations is made strong in the power that is of God. For it is wholly impossible to concentrate all these, heart, mind, and virtue, upon God and to hold them fixed upon His Face so long as it is necessary for them… to be subject to this frail and wretched body. And so, in a spiritual and immortal body (as promised in 1 Cor. 15:44), in a body perfect, calm, and acceptable, and in all things subject to the spirit, let the soul hope to apprehend the fourth degree of love, or rather, to be apprehended in it.”
So these four degrees of love are a useful framework to help us understand and pursue our growth in our love for God. Especially seeing the non-Christian first degree and the impossible-to-reach fourth degree, we are reminded that God has a plan for us that began before we even knew Him, and will continue even beyond this mortal life!