Bernard Clairvaux was a Christian mystic who lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A somewhat controversial figure for his activities (involved in organizing crusades) and his mediation in church disputes, he left behind his mystical writings. Several months ago I bought his work, The Steps of Humility and Pride, and another famous work of his, On Loving God. Although I haven’t yet fully read either of them, I did skim through the former. The Steps of Humility and Pride reminded me of Imitatio Christi by Thomas à Kempis, another mystic of premodern times. Both books are great, but reading them requires a consideration of the differences between premodern ways of thinking and our thoroughly modernized assumptions. Otherwise, one can easily misunderstand these masters. For example, Clairvaux’s The Steps lists curiosity as the first step to pride although from his description it seems he writes about a restlessness mixed with an unjustified interest in other people’s lives. I’m not sure how many people in our times would say that curiosity as they know it is a step towards pride.
But I’m not writing this post to intellectualize about the differences between modern and premodern thought; I’m writing to find the bridges between the two that would help us love God and others without judgment. And that, I believe, I found in his second book, On Loving God. Below are a few quotes from this book that I’ve put together for your enjoyment. If you don’t have time to read the whole book, then at least meditate on his words and see where you can connect the dots to see the grace of God.
“God certainly deserves a lot from us since he gave himself to us when we deserved it least. Besides, what could he have given us better than himself? Hence when seeking why God should be loved, if one asks what right he has to be loved, the answer is that the main reason for loving him is ‘He loved us first.’”
“It is important to point out which generation finds consolation in remembering God. Surely it is not the stubborn and defiant generation to whom it is said: ‘Woe to you who are rich, you have your consolation,’ rather it is to the generation which is able to say: ‘My soul refused to be consoled.’”
“God is not loved without reward although he should be loved without regard for one. True charity cannot be worthless, still, as ‘it does not seek its own advantage,’ it cannot be termed mercenary. Love pertains to the will, it is not a transaction; it cannot acquire or be acquired by a pact. Moving us freely, it makes us spontaneous. True love is content with itself; it has its reward, the object of its love. Whatever you seem to love because of something else, you do not really love; you really love the end pursued and not that by which it is pursued.”
In his book, Clairvaux differentiates between four degrees of love. The first degree of love is when “man loves himself for his own sake.” The second degree of love is when “man loves God for his own benefit.” The third degree of love shows up in the life of the man who “loves God for God’s sake.” And the fourth degree of love is manifest when “man loves himself for the sake of God.” Now, this fourth degree of love sounds like the touchy-feely, ego-boosting talk we hear so much, but as he describes it, the fourth degree is far from that. As he says, “to lose yourself, as if you no longer existed, to cease completely to experience yourself, to reduce yourself to nothing is not a human sentiment but a divine experience.”
That said, I don’t know about you, but I hear in these insights echoes of Sufism and Nirvana. Call me what you want, but I can’t help but think that at some point, certain religious teachings of various faiths must converge. The sentence above reminds me of Sufism because of the believers’ love that leads to a self-forgetting union with God. But it also reminds me of Nirvana because it seems to suggest the dissolving of the self in that union.
Regardless of its echoes in other faiths, Clairvaux’s treatise on the love of God is still valuable for those who want to love God.
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