On the Ladder of Love
Let's talk about love and levels of love. Love is so central to Christian identity that it becomes inconceivable to identify oneself as a Christian without visible marks of love as a testimony to the claim. God created us in love and for love, and He is the source of that love. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 13th-century great lover of God and the last of the Church Father, once said, "Love is the fountain of life, and the soul which does not drink from it cannot be called alive." But we ought to love God above all things and with all our life. There is a hierarchy of love. The goal of everyone created in the image and likeness of God is to prioritize their love for the author and source of love above other subjects of legitimate love. It is of utmost importance and highest priority that we love God first to love others rightly. Jesus calls us to love him more than we love our family. He teaches us to order priorities right when it comes to who we love most. To love God as He should be loved is a process and implies lifetime perseverance and progress.
St. Bernard wrote about four categories of the love of God that serves as a helpful guide as it throws light on the perfection of love.
The first degree is selfish love, that is, loving yourself for your own sake. Despite our awareness that God called us to love Him first and above all, the natural impulse is to love self first over God. This selfish love is a consequence of Original sin. It is part of our flawed human nature to self indulge in love for oneself to the detriment of our neighbors; hence we have to strive to overcome this excessive love of self to the expense of the love of God and neighbor. We are called to let this self-love overflow to others and not limited to oneself alone. We have to love God first to love ourselves rightly.
The second degree of love involves loving God for your own blessing- dependence on God. At this stage, you now love God but primarily for your own sake, the love of God for our benefits. At this level of love, a Christian only give thanks to God on account of His goodness to him. It is similar to what people in the secular world call friends with benefits. This type of lover tends to give thanks to God only when he or she receives blessings from Him. This form of love is not yet perfected, though an improvement over the first degree of love.
The third degree of love implies loving God for God's own sake. At this degree of love, a Christian begins to have intimacy with God. This kind of love is love without self-interest. It is a love that develops from intimacy with God and the discovery of his incredible goodness. It comes from actually having an experiential knowledge of his kindness and mercy. During this stage of love, we love for love's sake, a pure and spontaneous love, not love purely for self-interest.
The fourth degree of love is self-love for God's sake; it is a profound union with God's love. This stage of love at first appears contradictory because we know that self-love is a lower form of love, but when we ponder on it, it is the highest form of love that can only be attained momentarily here on earth and fully in heaven. At this height of love, the lover of God loses himself in God's love. To reach this stage of love is to be truly Christ-like, to be totally immersed in his grace. You decrease and Christ increase to the extent that he is the only one that exists. This highest level of love can be attained only permanently in heavenly as a reward for loving God alone and always.
As people who profess the love of Jesus above all others, let us consider the practice of love and make progress in St. Bernard's proposal on the love of God. 1 John 4:8 tells us that "God is love…we cannot say we know God without love" To love as God wants us to love, Jesus tells us in this Sunday's Gospel, we must take up our cross and follow Him, we must lose our lives in him to gain our lives. The only way to make progress from selfish love to agape love is to die to sin and live "for God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11).
St. Bernard of Clairvaux is not only a lover of God but a troubadour of agape love and you will derive spiritual benefits from singing or frequently meditating on his love lyrics that follow:
Jesus, our only joy be Thou. As Thou our prize wilt be; Jesus, be Thou our glory now and thru eternity.
In the Perfect Love of God,
Fr. Bernard Oniwe, OP