Companions on the Way – Bernard of Clairvaux – Reflection for 13 OCT 2019
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was a 12th Century Cistercian monk, reformer, and mystic. His writings On the Love of God and Commentary on the Song of Songs remain classics of mystical prayer. Two of his insights have been great company on my journey and I pray that you may find company in them as well.
In the first insight, Bernard describes the four ways or degrees of love we experience. We begin with a love of ourselves for ourself’s sake. This carnal love which seeks satisfaction in the pleasure of self. It is “a perverted will blindly seeking the sovereign good. It makes haste in vain, the plaything of its own vanity, deceived by iniquity.” As we come to realize the emptiness of the promises of self-gratification, we are drawn to seek satisfaction in something beyond ourselves, in God, the Creator. In this way, we come to the second love, the love of God for self’s sake. We love God because of what He can do for us. However shallow this type of love may be, it brings us into the presence of God and as we come to know the goodness of God, we begin to learn the third way of love, loving God for God’s sake. This is “a love most pure, for it is shown simply in holy deeds and truth; most just, for it returns that which it receives. Whoso loves with this love, loves as he is loved, and seeks no more his own, but the things of Jesus Christ, even as Jesus Christ has sought us.” As we dwell deeply in the love of God, we catch glimpses of the fourth way of love, the love of self for God’s sake. This is the mysterious losing and finding of our very self in the love of God, the place within the depth of our soul where we hear and know our true identity as Beloved.
While Bernard describes these ways of loving in a seemingly linear way, I find them more to be a like a spiral. God in His gentle love reveals to me the selfishness and futility of an affection. He then invites me to find the satisfaction of the desire that motivates the affection in Him. In satisfying the desire, He draws me into His presence where again I find delight in His presence more than in the fulfillment of my desire. I may even catch the glimpse of the way that the affection and desire were only ways of my soul striving for love. I may hear the call to cease striving to be loved and to simply be loved. I may for a brief instant know and experience the love that God has for me, until the next affection or desire that draws me away from God captures the attention of my heart and the cycle begins anew.
In the second insight, Bernard instructs how to love others in the love of God. He writes, “The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself.”
I keep this wisdom from Saint Bernard close at hand. Whenever I am anxious, frustrated, troubled, or otherwise distracted in ministry, I use it to remind myself of the vital importance of cultivating time to be filled with the love of God before serving in the Name of that same Love. Almost always, I find that the source of my discomfort in ministry stems from trying to love from emptiness rather than fullness. This is a call for me to return to the love of God for God’s sake and be filled.
May you be filled with the love of God to overflowing and may you know the depths to which God loves you.