August 19, 2009

The First Stage of Love According to St. Bernard

Tomorrow will be the feast of St. Bernard. A brilliant monastic thinker of his time, he helped contemplatives understand their growth toward spiritual maturity. He presented his ideas in terms of love - the growth and development of love in our life of faith.

The first kind of love on which growth in the spiritual life depends is a healthy love of self. He calls this, "love of oneself for one's own sake." In general, people who look out for themselves tend to avoid harmful behavior and embrace a good style of life. This is also true of people of faith. If we believe in God but fail to care for ourselves, our faith really does not do us much good. But if we want a better life for ourselves, we find ourselves oriented to a godly life. We want salvation - freedom from all those things that prevent us from becoming who we really are.

When I first began to understand this insight, I had this knee jerk reaction about loving myself for my own sake. True, Jesus said that we should love our neighbor as ourself and St. Paul asserts that no one hates his own body but rather cares for it. Yet loving concern for "self" has a paradoxical relationship to the Gospel mandate "deny yourself and pick up your cross."

Here, we will not resolve this paradox except to say that if we did not have a healthy love of self we would be less Christ like. Even he, the night before he died, prayed that if it was the Father's will, he might be spared his suffering and death. This indicates that the movement in the Lord's heart to love to the full, to lay down his life for oursakes, presumes he valued the gift of human life He shared with us and that all things being equal He wanted to keep it. Life was something precious to Him otherwise it would not have been a sacrifice to lay it down for our sakes.

Christ's attitude toward life is the attitude that every Christian must have. Christians who want to mature in their faith must learn to treasure the life entrusted to them and to reject squandering it on bitterness or brooding. Life is approached with a wonderful sort of vigor and freshness when we see that each heartbeat, each breath, is an irreplaceable gift.

Those who have suddenly been healed of what should have been a mortal illness know this feeling. Even those who have been told they will soon die can make the interior decision to make the most of life right now. When this sort of decision is made - the decision to live life to the full, one has begun to embrace what St. Bernard means. This kind of decision to live life to the full is, in the thought of St. Bernard, a decision to love oneself for one's own sake.

One important aspect of this decision: it is not selfish but profoundly connected to those whom God has put in our lives. Every moment spent with a loved one or any little sacrifice made to take care of them is a joy - because somehow these other people we love are connected to us. The "self" co-inheres, or at least it is meant to co-inhere in those we love. This means taking care of them is a wonderful way to take care of oneself.

When we choose to live like this, the discipline of the Christian life makes a lot of sense. Daily prayer, giving up unnecesary things, small acts of love that no one notices, being fully present to and cherishing those God has entrusted to us, being passionate and pursuing excellence in work given to us, praying before meals and sharing them with others, avoiding insobriety and guttony, generosity to all - these practices simply flow out of a life lived to the full.

Another thing also happens when we try to live this way. We discover that we can not do it by ourselves. We need God's help. So, we begin to ask Him and we begin to discover the loving Providence of God. He is so unimagineably good to us in so many tender ways - but often we do not see it because we have never humbled ourselves to ask for His assistance. When we do humble ourselves and go to Him - we soon find ourselves filled with all kinds of gratitude. We even discover, sometimes to our own surprise, we really love God. And we will look at this next step of love in our next post.