This week will contain both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. And somehow as I was contemplating both of these holidays together, I came up with Bernard of Clairvaux. His theory of the Four Loves has been an important touchpoint in my life.
Bernard lived around 1100 CE in France. It sounds like he had a decent, loving childhood in a mid-level aristocratic family. He had five siblings and a mother that greatly influenced him. In his early years, he was an up-and-coming church leader.
At the age of 22, he moved away from moving up the ladder and instead moved into a monastic life in the Benedictine way. At the age of 25, he was appointed to start his own monastic house near Clairvaux. In an ironic twist of fate, in his middle years Bernard became “the center of gravity of medieval Christianity.”
Bernard was not uncomplicated. Besides grounding his theology in love, he also encouraged a second crusade targeting Muslims. I wonder how he would reconcile these two aspects of his life when looked at from a distance.
The Four Loves
Bernard wrote a small book, “On Loving God” (also sometimes seen as “On the Love of God”). In it, he posited that there are four forms of love and we can ascend from step to step in these loves.
Level one loving is Loving Yourself for Your Own Sake. Level two is Loving Yourself for God’s Sake. Level three is Loving God for God’s Sake. And the highest level, Bernard says is virtually unattainable, is Loving Self for God’s Sake.
Loving Yourself For Your Own Sake
Bernard’s first level of love is Loving Yourself For Your Own Sake. This is the way we come out of the womb. We care about ourselves. We love ourselves by putting ourselves first, by making sure we have what we need (or want). Because of our self-preservation instinct, we focus on our self, and love ourselves in order that we will be healthy, strong and long-lived.
Loving God For Your Own Sake
Bernard goes on to assume we humans will be introduced to God and want to build a relationship with God. As we do this, we move into the second level of love: Loving God for our own sake.
Once we get an awareness of God, we want to please God. And by loving God, we will please God and make God happy which (we hope) will make life easier for us.
One behavior of folks at this stage of love is fervent prayers during times of trouble, followed by a lack of prayers during the good times. When we remember our need for God, we invest in the relationship. When our lives are going well, we can forget about God.
The majority of people, Bernard says, never make it past this stage.
Loving God for God’s Sake
When people take their spiritual lives seriously and they invest deeply in their relationship with God over the long term, they can move into Bernard’s third form of love, Loving God for God’s sake.
In this stage, we move out of the transactional nature of love (“I love you because you give me things/keep me safe/make me feel good”) and we move into a more pure love. “I love you because you are loveable,” without any thought about what you can do for me.
We now love God not because of what God can do for me, but we love God because God is worthy of love.
A corollary to this is love of neighbor. It is in this stage that we can really embrace loving our neighbors as ourselves. In this stage we no longer love a neighbor for who they are or what they do — we love our neighbor because they are worthy of love no matter what.
Our outward and visible sign in this stage is an active, continuing prayer life, no matter our circumstances. Also, we give generously so that our neighbors can have what they need, without judging their qualifications or worthiness.
Loving Yourself for God’s Sake
Bernard believed only a few people in the history of the world ever attained the final level of love, Loving yourself for God’s sake. This is when we become at-one with God. It is the Unitive Experience that many mystics describe.
Although few if any humans ever live in this stage full-time, many of us may experience glimmers and moments of this stage during our lifetime.
In this stage, all of our own wants and desires drop away, and we experience only God’s desire and love for us. We love ourselves because we have in some sense simply become God’s love and are fully living in that love.
What’s the Connection to Ash Wednesday?
So…traditionally people give something up for Lent (which begins on Ash Wednesday). More recently, many people have moved towards adding something for Lent instead of subtracting something.
What might it be like if our Lenten Practice was to try giving up loving for our own sake, and to try to take on loving for God’s sake instead? It might be a lovely way to spend 40 days.
Each time you notice yourself loving someone/something/God in thanksgiving for something they’ve done, take a step back and practice for a moment loving them simply for themselves — not for anything they’ve done.
And for 40 days, try loving yourself simply because you are lovable. Not because of anything you do or don’t do, not because of the way you look or feel at any particular time. Just love yourself, love your thoughts, love your feelings, love your body, simply because you are lovable.
Apropos of Nothing
Bernard also wrote a lot about humility. Perhaps the best line written about humility is his, “Humility in furs is better than pride in tunics.”
Feel free to comment below to let us know what you think about love or fur or tunic or humility.