Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs as well as the book, Loving God in which he wrote: there are four degrees of love:
- Love of self for self’s sake.
- Love of God for self’s sake.
- Love of God for God’s own sake.
- Love of self for God’s sake.
These four degrees of love are a journey through which we discover the true love of God.
The first degree is the human condition. It is where we all begin our journey. We love ourselves. We want our toys. Others exists as a means of giving us attention, affection, and a sense of significance. We use others for our own purposes. We enter relationships only for what we can get out of them not for what we can give. I have met with many married couples on their way to divorce. One common theme I hear is “He/she no longer meets my needs.” That is a sure indication they are living in the first degree of love, seeking self-satisfaction and not sacrificially giving themselves to the other.
This is not as the precept ordains but as nature directs: “No man ever yet hated his own flesh” (Ephesians 5:29). But if, as is likely, this same love should grow excessive and, refusing to be contained within the restraining banks of necessity, should overflow into the fields of voluptuousness, then a command checks the flood, as if by a dike: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Bernard of Clairvaux. On Loving God
The second degree is basic religion. We love God only for what we can get from God. We go to church and receive the sacraments so we can go to heaven. We look down on those who do not measure up to our religious standards. We are very public in our religious practice because we want others to think of us as good god-fearing people. We seek positions of control in our religious group so our authority over others can make us feel good about ourselves. Surely, God is taking notice of how good we are and how much we do for him. These were the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who did all the religious thing right but didn’t recognize God when he was at their dinner table.
His goodness once realized draws us to love Him unselfishly, yet more than our own needs impel us to love Him selfishly. Bernard of Clairvaux. On Loving God
The third degree of love is true faith. We love God for who he is, not what he can do for us. We go to church to worship, to pray, to seek fellowship with other so we can discover ways to help them. We volunteer for the jobs no one wants. We are servants as Christ was a servant. Our prayer life is characterized by worshiping God for his goodness and his character. We pray for the needs of others. We give our own needs to God as well, but always seeking God’s will in our lives, not our own. “Thy will be done.”
No longer do we love God because of our necessity, but because we have tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is. Bernard of Clairvaux. On Loving God
The fourth degree of love is empowering gratitude. We are grateful to God the good and the bad we see in ourselves. For our gifts as well as our weaknesses. For our successes as well as our failures. We are grateful to God for our relationships, even those we find difficult. We go to church to give thanks God for his limitless goodness and love, to truly participate in the Eucharist of the Mass. Our gratitude releases the power of God in our lives and the lives of others. We see miracles follow us, but few notice. That is okay because we live only to please God alone and in secret.
I would count him blessed and holy to whom such rapture has been given in this mortal life, for even an instant to lose yourself, as if you were emptied out and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love; it is heavenly. Bernard of Clairvaux. On Loving God