Bernard of Clairvaux was a monk in the 11th and 12th centuries. Bernard enjoys wide appeal. After reading his classic, On Loving God, I understand why.
This book has a refreshing, simple focus on loving God. It is not a work of dazzling theological argument but evokes 1 Corinthians 8:2-3: “If anyone thinks he knows anything, he does not yet know it as he ought to know it. But if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.”
Loving God is a topic Christians of all stripes can get around. Bernard’s writings are also steeped in scripture. Protestant reformers found kinship in this and claimed Bernard as a proto-reformer.
Still, On Loving God has a spiritual ladder like we would expect from a medieval Catholic mystic. There are four degrees of love: We climb from 1) loving God out of self-interest to 2) loving God and neighbor unselfishly to 3) loving God just because He is God to 4) loving ourselves only in God. The fourth degree of love is the farthest we can reach in this life. Love reaches perfection only in the resurrection of the body.
I’m going to close with some quotes from On Loving God. If you like these, read the whole book. It isn’t long or difficult. Turning my focus from dogma or theological issues to loving God was definitely beneficial.
She [the church] beholds King Solomon, with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals; she sees the Sole-begotten of the Father bearing the heavy burden of His Cross; she sees the Lord of all power and might bruised and spat upon, the Author of life and glory transfixed with nails, smitten by the lance, overwhelmed with mockery, and at last laying down His precious life for His friends. Contemplating this the sword of love pierces through her own soul also and she cried aloud, “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for I am sick of love.” The fruits which the Spouse gathers from the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden of her Beloved, are pomegranates (Song of Solomon 4:13), borrowing their taste from the Bread of heaven and their color from the Blood of Christ. She sees death dying and its author overthrown: she beholds captivity led captive from hell to earth, from earth to heaven, so “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).
“Whoso eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath eternal life” (John 6:54). That signifies, whoso honors My death and after My example mortifies his members which are upon the earth (Colossians 3:5) shall have eternal life, even as the apostle says, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Timothy 2:12). And yet many even today recoil from these words and go away, saying by their action if not with their lips, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60).
Creation was not so vast a work as redemption; for it is written of man and of all things that were made, “He spake the word, and they were made” (Psalm 148:5). But to redeem that creation which sprang into being at His word, how much He spake, what wonders He wrought, what hardships He endured, what shames He suffered! Therefore what reward shall I give unto the Lord for all the benefits which He hath done unto me? In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?