On Faith: Four stages in love's journey“Love” is a word we use freely in our culture to mean all sorts of things. We “love” chocolate. We “love” our city. We “love” our children. But do we really mean the same thing when we use the word “love” in these ways? Almost 900 years ago Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk, set out to map the progression of love in our spiritual awakening.
By: Rev. Lawrence S. Lee, Pastor, Lake County News Chronicle
“Love” is a word we use freely in our culture to mean all sorts of things. We “love” chocolate. We “love” our city. We “love” our children. But do we really mean the same thing when we use the word “love” in these ways?
Almost 900 years ago Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk, set out to map the progression of love in our spiritual awakening.
The first stage of love was what he called “carnal love” or love of self. In short, a person loves him or herself for their own sake. This is selfish love, but that isn’t all bad, says Bernard. We need to cultivate a sense of self preservation. It’s necessary, but not the end point.
The second stage of love occurs when the individual has an awakening understanding of his or her own mortality and finitude and seeks out the divine to secure his or her own preservation. In other words, when we face our own death, we are frightened for our lives and we turn to God out of fear. The old aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes” is an extension of this stage of love. We love God for our own sake and we fear God which, as the psalmists write, is the beginning of wisdom. Again, this is necessary, but not the end point.
The third stage of love occurs when we begin to recognize that God (the divine, the holy, whatever you wish to call the transcendent other) is worthy of love not for what we get out of this relationship, but simply for the love of God. This is mature love and we see the same thing happen in human relationships. We often begin relationships for what we can get out of the relationship–status, sex, self-satisfaction, etc.–but, if we mature in our appreciation and recognition of the other we begin to give more than we get. This is sacrificial love, and it is the love we are called to render to both God and neighbor. But this is still not the end point.
In stage one we love ourselves for our own sake. In stage two we love God for our own sake. In stage three we love God for God’s sake. So, it should not surprise us that in stage four we come full circle and love ourselves for God’s sake. The climax of love, Bernard says, is an enlightened love of self where we see ourselves as we truly are, through the divine reflection, and we are lovable. This is not a selfish love, but a selfless love which abandons our own conception of self. This, I believe, is what John Wesley hundreds of years later would call “perfection in love.” I also believe that mystics through the ages and in many different traditions experienced this kind of love as transcendence and enlightenment.
The beauty of Bernard’s model is that, while it is thoroughly Christian in origin, I think it can relate to people on many different paths. I think it is also an important reminder to some Christians who often get stuck at stage two and think that “fear of the Lord” is all there is.
Wherever you are on your journey of love I pray that these ancient words can bring you hope as we all aspire to greater and greater love.
The Rev. Lawrence S. Lee has been pastor of the United Church of Two Harbors since August 2003 and is currently on a monastic retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey near Three Rivers, Michigan.