For anyone wanting to learn about the simple and complex realities On Loving God, the early writings by Bernard of Clairvauxs present a great place to start. His assessment is written in old style but is pretty easy to understand and relate to. It's encouraging too that he writes with humbleness about the kinds of difficult questions of what love is and whether or not he is the best one to provide answers. The following quote is an example of the way the writer (Halsall, no date of editing or reformatting) summarized this sense of honesty,
Yet I am glad that you turn again for spiritual counsel, instead of busying yourself about carnal matters: I only wish you had gone to someone better equipped than I am. Still, learned and simple give the same excuse and one can hardly tell whether it comes from modesty or from ignorance, unless obedience to the task assigned shall reveal. So, take from my poverty what I can give you, lest I should seem to play the philosopher, by reason of my silence.
One of the results of this is that others have found it easy to present Bernard's ideas in ways that are appealing as we seek to relate them to our lives. I found this useful as I linked his thoughts to what I've learned through religious services and readings, and as I sought to learn more about the topic of God's love by other writers such as Saint Augustine.
For example, in reading Bernard's words I understood how he made the case for accepting that love is something natural and a natural state for those who are Christian. By that he seems to mean that even the love that we associate with ordinary life and growing with others becomes a step or set of steps in maturing to a true love of all the God offers through His son Jesus. Once he established this, Bernard then turned to detailing what he says are the four stages of love and how one gets through these steps to the ultimate attainment of what God means.
Because what he says is important, I've elected to provide the entire quote from Halsall's rendition of his words here. I will then use the works of others to address some of the specifics. Bernard's quote about the stages identifies them in this way:
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. (page 39 of download book)
These degrees of growth and progress were interpreted differently to put them into livable stories by a number of people. When I researched the topic I found several, some of whom used beautiful imagery of their own kind. In particular, I found one in a book by Brian McLaren's book (200), A New Kind of Christianity. In a footnote he connects Bernard's ideas to how an infant grows, feeds on his survival needs, becomes a more mature child and ultimately gains the maturity of young adulthood and then full growth where he or she meets what is meant by God's deepest, truest of love. I've put his ideas into these words, using his concepts:
1. Stage One: Learning to love oneself for one's own sake. This stage is the infant nursing, gaining satisfaction for his selfish need, happily needing and being unaware of other's needs.
2. Stage Two: Loving God for one's own sake. At this point the infant has become a child who appreciates her mom and gives back. She presents mom with a drawing or flowers, being grateful for what mom has done for her.
3. Stage Three: Loving God for God's own sake. At this level of growth the adolescent has changed and sees his mom for what she is: independent of whatever she has done for him. She is her own person and deserves to be loved as such.
4. Stage Four: Loving oneself for God's own sake. And finally, the strength of her love stands alone and can be successfully tested in its own right. He, as an adult, might get knocked down by life and he may even make bad judgments about love and finding it. But by with this attainment he is able to right himself, holding tight to God's expectations and moving himself toward the kind of love that remains through physical life.
In his own contemplations, Bernard of Clairvauxs says that his representation of the degrees of grow may not be the best but are surely the sweetest of the answers to the question of what love is because they match what we all crave, the wonder of love in its basic forms. If it is not interrupted, the progress is natural and does not need to be forced or rewarded with incentives that might otherwise become the focus of attention. He openly discusses how one would never have to pay a hungry person to eat. Such a person eats because he wants to in order to survive (Halsall, page 19). In the same way, a thirsty person does not need to be bribed to drink. Nor do mothers have to be made or paid to nurse their babies. It's what they do and what we do in the search to grab and keep love. And thus it is why writers like McLaren use their own imagery to make the answers even simpler and something we all understand.
This same imagery is how I view love myself and fits well with what I believe is the way the Bible talks about it in the two forms of love that come up in various sections. To me, love isn't just what we feel, it is what we do. It's a measurement of how well we live up to Christian expectations toward others and toward God and Jesus, which makes it a guide for how we grow to share joy and wisdom with others. Doing charity or working on causes of importance are part of this for me, but so is just making visible as much love as I can show to people I meet and as I go about being Christian in everyday life.
I know that there are two kinds of love presented in the Bible, the love that is like one might have with and for a brother or sister, and the love that is God's message in accepting what Jesus stands for. (See Deem, 2003.) The first is called Phileo love and seems mostly what Bernard of Clairvauxs is talking about even if he may argue with this. The child grows and becomes independent and loves those who support his growth. When the highest level of maturity is reached, then the second type of love comes into play. Called Agape, this concept has been described in different ways. Most always it is said to be kind and truthful love, unselfish and trusting love, hope-filled and enduring love. This kind of love isn't founded on jealousy or arrogance. It's a pure movement into the higher level that includes what we do and the why of our thinking behind it. This is what is meant when Matthew 22:37 says that Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."
After looking for how others have seen the idea of Christian love, I found that Saint Augustine's conversations fill out the idea even more. Throughout his life Augustine was torn by the expectations of his mother who simply wanted him to accept the maturity of God's love and some of his own experiences as he lived a Christian life. His confessions demonstrate this experience and the confusion he lived as he got back to the basics -- almost as if he lost his way through the stages the Bernard presented. He has passing loves with women. He even admits to selfish to unselfish love, even to the love of many parts of evil in life, showing how the growth of his innocence doesn't happen…