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Four Degrees of Love (Bernard of Clairvaux)

“Love is the fountain of life, and the soul which does not drink from it cannot be called alive.” These are the ancient words of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153), a great lover of God and considered the last of the Church Fathers.

Bernard was Cistercian monk and followed very strict disciplines. He chose to live in a primitive hut in a marshy valley rather than a wealthy Benedictine monastery nearby. Why? He said, “I was conscious my weak character needed a strong medicine.” Later he founded 70 monasteries and was the leader of the monastery at Clairvaux, France. He taught that to know God we need to be devoted to him in poverty, simplicity, and solitude. His writings had a profound influence on Martin Luther, who called him “the best monk that ever lived,” and John Calvin.

Bernard’s devotional classic, The Love of God, explains what divine love is how we grow and develop in the perfect love of God which has come to us in Jesus Christ. In it he presents his famous Four Degrees of Love, which are a model for spiritual development in Christlikeness. His fourth stage of maturity is a surprise! It doesn’t seem to be right until we come to understand his meaning and then we are won over to a whole new way of understanding ourselves in God!

An Excerpt from The Love of God by Bernard of Clairvaux

What, then, will the Lord be to those who seek His presence?

Here is a marvelous thing, for it is impossible to seek the Lord unless one is already found of Him… O God, You may be sought and found, but no one can [accomplish this on their own.] God in His prevenience does this. For if we say, “Early shall my prayer come before Thee” (Psalm 5), yet all prayer would still be lukewarm unless it were animated by Thine inspiration…

The 1st Degree of Love: Loving Yourself For Your Own Sake (Selfish Love)

The first and great commandment is: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

But nature is so frail and weak that people are forced to love themselves first of all. However, this is carnal love… selfish… [This] love does not come as a precept, it comes naturally, for “no one ever yet hated their own flesh” (Ephesians 5:29). Yet it is natural for this love to grow excessively, and like a strong current, burst the banks of self-control, flooding the field of self-indulgence. A commandment, like a newly-built dike, is then needed: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39)…

Let us restrain our own self-love if we would avoid becoming transgressors. You can be as indulgent as you like about yourself, provided you shows the same indulgence with your neighbors.

O friend, you need the restraint of temperance, lest you follow your own wanton desires to distraction, or become so enslaved by the passions which are the enemies of your soul. It is far better to divide your enjoyment with your neighbor than with your enemy [passions].

If you heed the counsel of the wise, you will turn away from your own appetites and discipline yourself (Proverbs 13:18). Then you will follow the teaching of the apostle: “But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8). In consequence, you will be able to “abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Then you will not find it a burden to share with your neighbor what you have held back from your enemy [of your selfish passions]… So what could readily be a selfish love can become truly social when it can extend to include others.

But if you find that your benevolence to your neighbor reduces your own support which you need, what can you do then?… “Ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to [you]” (James 1:5). Again, as the psalmist says, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16). There is not doubt that God will provide for our needs; indeed, He gives most people more than they need. So His promise is true: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33; Luke 12:31). God freely promises to give all things necessary those who do not withhold themselves from the needs of others and who thus love their neighbors. To seek first the Kingdom of God means really to prevent sin from ruling in our lives (Romans 6:12) and to prefer the yoke of modesty and sobriety with God’s help…

However, if we are to love our neighbor with absolute righteousness, we need to acknowledge God as our motive and cause. For how can we love with pure motives if we do not love God first of all? Only then can we love our neighbor. It is impossible to love in God without first loving God (1 Thessalonians 2:1-11). So it is essential we love God first in order to love others also.

God, as the source of all goodness, is the source of our ability and disposition to love others…

The 2nd Degree of Love: Loving God for Your Own Blessing (Dependence on God)

People who are animal and carnal by instinct, who only know what it means to love themselves, can begin to love God for their own blessing.

[This second degree of love] means you now love God. Yet it is still love for your own benefit, not God’s own sake. Nevertheless, it is wisdom to know what you can do by yourself and what you can only do with God’s help to keep you from offending God by sin. If when sufferings occur and sins gain in frequency, then we are forced to turn to God for His unfailing love. Eventually will not even the cold heart of stone in a cast-iron cage be tenderized by the goodness of God’s grace? Will this one then not be forced to love God — not selfishly — but because God is God?…

Let’s respond with the psalmist, ” O, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” (Psalm 118:1). This is not a confession of being good to the Lord, but of the Lord being good to us. It is the love of God for our benefits. The person who is at the second degree of love will give thanks to God when He has shown him kindness.

The 3rd Degree of Love: Loving God for God’s Own Sake (Intimacy with God)

Our frequent needs throw us back constantly upon God. By such continual dependence, we learn to enjoy God’s presence. This intimacy with God becomes sweet as we learn to discover how wonderful God is. This experience thus promotes the love of God, so that it transcends over all our needs. Like the Samaritans, we are to respond that we know His goodness, not because we were told about it, but we have experienced it for ourselves (John 4:42). So too we tell our flesh, “we love God, not because of your needs, for we have tasted and known for ourselves the sweetness of the Lord” (see Psalm 34:8)…

Now we love God for what He really is. Our love is pure, and we obey out of a pure heart and in loving obedience (1 Peter 1:22). We love justly… This love is also pleasing because it is spontaneous. It is true love, because it is not just wordy, but it is demonstrated by deeds (1 John 3:18). It is righteous, because it gives as it receives.

The person who loves like this, truly loves the the things of God… without self-interest (1 Corinthians 13:5). This is to love those things that belong to Jesus Christ, even as Christ sought our interests, or rather sought us, and never looked after His own [interest]…

The 4th Degree of Love: Self-Love for God’s Sake (Being United with God’s Love)

Blessed are those who can attain the fourth degree of love. Then they will love themselves only in God! “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains… O Lord” (Psalm 36:6). For this love is a mountain of great elevation that is fertile and rich. “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?” (Psalm 24:3)…

When will my soul, inebriated with divine love, learn to be unconsciously self-forgetful, and simply be a broken vessel (Psalm 31:12)? Then it will hasten to God to depend upon Him and cling only to Him. Then will my spirit be at one with God (1 Corinthians 6:17), saying, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).

Blessed and holy is the one who has been privileged, even if only momentarily in this life, to taste of this love. For to so lose yourself that you are reduced to nothing is a dive experience and not a human sentiment (Philippians 2:7)…

In God all our affections should center, so that in all things we should seek to do only His will and not to please ourselves. True blessing will come to us then, not in self-gratifcation, nor in transient pleasure, but in accomplishing God’s will in us. So we pray daily. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)…

To reach this condition is to be godly. For as a drop of water disappears in a barrel of wine, taking the taste and color of wine, so is this state. Or like a bar of iron that is heated and red-hot and becomes like the flame itself, so is this return to divine love. Or just as air becomes so radiant with the light of the sun that it appears to be the very sunlight itself, so it is with the saints whose human love is transmuted by the will of God Himself…

Not until death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54), and eternal light overwhelms all darkness, and takes full possession so that glory alone shines in their bodies, can our souls be entirely set free to be given wholly to God. For until then the soul is restricted in the body, bound at least to it by the natural affections, of not also still vitally connected by physical sense…

[In heaven] the fourth degree of love is attained forever. It consists of loving God, only and always… God will be the reward of them that love Him.

Cultivating Bernard of Clairvaux’s Love of God

“God is love… Love comes from God…” (1 John 4.) To progress in Bernard’s stages of love from selfish love to agapé love that wills good for God and others we must deny our selfish passions, grow in thankfulness for God’s love to us, become captivated by God’s nature of love, and ultimately lose ourselves n God.

The other thing we can do to grow into greater degrees of the wonderful and beautiful love of Christ and of God our Father is to meditate on the lyrics to Bernard’s inspiring hymns of devotion to God until our soul begins to sing we are drawn to take heart for God from him. Here are my two favorites:

Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee

Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see
And in Thy presence rest.

No voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,
O Savior of mankind.

O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall how kind Thou art!
How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah, this
No tongue nor pen can show
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but His loved ones know.

Jesus, our only joy be Thou.
As Thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be Thou our glory now
And thru eternity.

Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts

Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts!
Thou fount of life!  Thou Light of men!
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfill’d to Thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee, Thou art good,
To them that find Thee, All in All!

We taste thee, O thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon thee still!
We drink of Thee the Fountain-head,
And thirst our souls from thee to fill!

Our restless spirits yearn for thee
Where’er our changeful lot is cast;
Glad, when Thy gracious smile we see,
Blest, when our faith can hold Thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay!
Make all our moments calm and bright!
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed o’er the world thy holy light!


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