The four degrees of love
by Bernard of Clairvaux
Introduction to the Author
Bernard (1090-1153) was one of the great leaders in the history of the Church. He was an eloquent speaker and considered by many to be one of the holiest individuals who ever lived. He grew up in Dijon, France, and at the age of twenty-two entered as a novice in the monastery of Cîteaux. Three years later he was appointed to supervise a group of his fellow monks in the newly founded monastery at Clairvaux. Though he was offered high positions in the church, Bernard remained at Clairvaux until his death.
Thanks to careful preservation over the centuries, many of Bernard’s writings have survived today. His works had a profound influence on both Martin Luther and John Calvin. The following reading is taken from his well-known work, his treatise On the Love of God. In it Bernard incisively outlines his famous “four degrees of love.”
Excerpts from On the Love of God
- Why God Should be Loved
You ask me, “Why should God be loved?” I answer: the reason for loving God is God himself. And why should God be loved for his own sake? Simply because no one could be more justly loved than God, no one deserves our love more. Some may question if God deserves our love or if they might have something to gain by loving him. The answer to both questions is yes, but I find no other worthy reason for loving him except himself.
- The First Degree of Love: Love of Self for Self’s Sake
Love is a natural human affection. It comes from God. Hence the first and greatest commandment is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” But human nature is weak and therefore compelled to love itself and serve itself first. In the human realm people love themselves for their own sake. This is planted within us for who ever hated his own self?
But if this love of ourselves becomes too lavish, it will overflow its natural boundaries through excessive love of pleasure. People can easily become slaves to the soul’s enemy: lust. This love of self is held in check by the command to love our neighbor. If we cannot love our neighbor because of our love of self, then we must restrain our lusts and give to our neighbor’s needs. Your love will then be temperate when you take from yourself and give to your neighbor.
… In order to love our neighbor we must see that God is the cause of our love. How can we have a pure love for our neighbor if we do not love him in God? And you cannot love your neighbor unless you love God. God must be loved first in order that we may love our neighbor in God.
- The Second Degree of Love: Love of God for Self’s Sake
God, therefore, who makes everything that is good, makes himself to be loved. He does it as follows: first, God blesses us with his protection. When we live free from trouble we are happy, but in our pride we may conclude that we are responsible for our security. Then, when we suffer some calamity, some storm in our lives, we turn to God and ask his help, calling upon him in times of trouble. This is how we who only love ourselves first begin to love God. We will begin to love God even if it is for our own sake. We love God because we have learned that we can do all things through him, and without him we can do nothing.
- The Third Degree of Love: Love of God for God’s Sake
In the first degree of love we love ourselves for our own sake. In the second degree of love we love God for our own sake, chiefly because he has provided for us and rescued us. But if trials and tribulations continue to come upon us, every time God brings us through, even if our hearts were made of stone, we will begin to be softened because of the grace of the Rescuer. Thus, we begin to love God not merely for our own sakes, but for himself.
In order to arrive at this we must continually go to God with our needs and pray. In those prayers the grace of God is tasted, and by frequent tasting it is proved to us how sweet the Lord is. Thus it happens that once God’s sweetness has been tasted, it draws us to the pure love of God more than our needs compel us to love him. Thus we begin to say, “We now love God, not for our necessity, for we ourselves have tasted and know how sweet the Lord is.”
When we begin to feel this, it will not be hard to fulfill the second commandment: to love our neighbor. For those who truly love God in this way also love the things of God. Also, it becomes easier to be obedient in all of the commands of God. We begin to love God’s commands and embrace them.
This love is pure because it is disinterested (i.e., not offered in order to obtain something). It is pure because it is not merely in our words that we begin to serve, but in our actions. We love because we are loved. We care for others because Jesus cares for us.
We have obtained this degree when we can say, “Give praise to the Lord for he is good, not because he is good to me, but because he is good.” Thus we truly love God for God’s sake and not for our own. The third degree of love is the love by which God is now loved for his very self.
- The Fourth Degree of Love: Love of Self for God’s Sake
Blessed are we who experience the fourth degree of love wherein we love ourselves for God’s sake. Such experiences are rare and come only for a moment. In a manner of speaking, we lose ourselves as though we did not exist, utterly unconscious of ourselves and emptied of ourselves.
If for even a moment we experience this kind of love, we will then know the pain of having to return to this world and its obligations as we are recalled from the state of contemplation. In turning back to ourselves we will feel as if we are suffering as we return into the mortal state in which we were called to live.
But during those moments we will be of one mind with God, and our wills in one accord with God. The prayer, “Thy will be done,” will be our prayer and our delight. Just as a little drop of water mixed with a lot of wine seems to entirely lose its own identity as it takes on the taste and color of the wine; just as iron, heated and glowing, looks very much like fire, having lost its original appearance: just as air flooded with the light of the sun is transformed into the same splendor of the light so that it appears to be light itself, so it is like for those who melt away from themselves and are entirely transfused into the will of God.
This perfect love of God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength will not happen until we are no longer compelled to think about ourselves and attend to the body’s immediate needs. Only then can the soul attend to God completely. This is why in the present body we inhabit this is difficult to maintain. But it is within God’s power to give such an experience to whom he wills, and it is not attained by our own efforts.
- Entering into the First, Second, and Third Degrees of Love
What are the four degrees of love? First, we love ourselves for our own sake; since we are unspiritual and of the flesh we cannot have an interest in anything that does not relate to ourselves. When we begin to see that we cannot subsist by ourselves, we begin to seek God for our own sakes. This is the second degree of love; we love God, but only for our own interests. But if we begin to worship and come to God again and again by meditating, by reading, by prayer, and by obedience, little by little God becomes known to us through experience. We enter into a sweet familiarity with God, and by tasting how sweet the Lord is we pass into the third degree of love so that now we love God, not for our own sake, but for himself. It should be noted that in this third degree we will stand still for a very long time.
- Can We Attain the Fourth Degree of Love?
I am not certain that the fourth degree of love in which we love ourselves only for the sake of God may be perfectly attained in this life. But, when it does happen, we will experience the joy of the Lord and be forgetful of ourselves in a wonderful way. We are, for those moments, one mind and one spirit with God.
I am of the opinion that this is what the prophet meant when he said: “I will enter into the power of the Lord: O Lord I will be mindful of Thy justice alone.” He felt, certainly, that when he entered into the spiritual powers of the Lord he would have laid aside self and his whole being would, in the spirit, be mindful of the justice of the Lord alone.
When we attain the fourth degree of love, then the net of charity which now, drawn through this great and vast sea, does not cease to gather together fish of every kind, when brought at last to the shore casting forth the bad, will retain only the good. Still, I do not know if we can attain this degree in this life. We live in a world of sorrow and tears and we experience the mercy and comfort of God only in that context. How can we be mindful of mercy when the justice of God alone will be remembered? Where there is no place for misery or occasion for pity, surely there can be no feeling of compassion.
If anyone deserves to stand beside St. John as an “apostle of love,” it has to be Bernard. He wrote some eighty-six sermons on the Song of Solomon as an allegory of divine/human love. His beautiful hymn, “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee,” reverberates with the language of divine love.
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.
How very appropriate of Bernard to remind us of the centrality of love. We so easily elevate other things to the place of first importance: our big budgets and impressive buildings, our dedicated service to the world, our doctrinal eccentricities. But Bernard cuts through all our ego-strutting activity and calls us again to love God in purity of heart, in sincerity of soul, in holiness of life.
—Richard J. Foster