St. Bernard of Clairvaux: On Loving God
This text is excerpted from the online edition
at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. For full text, click here
To the illustrious Lord Haimeric, Cardinal
Deacon of the Roman Church, and Chancellor: Bernard, called Abbot of Clairvaux,
wisheth long life in the Lord and death in the Lord.
Hitherto you have been wont to seek prayers from
me, not the solving of problems; although I count myself sufficient for neither.
My profession shows that, if not my conversation; and to speak truth, I lack
the diligence and the ability that are most essential. Yet I am glad that you
turn again for spiritual counsel, instead of busying yourself about carnal
matters: I only wish you had gone to some one better equipped than I am. Still,
learned and simple give the same excuse and one can hardly tell whether it
comes from modesty or from ignorance, unless obedience to the task assigned
shall reveal. So, take from my poverty what I can give you, lest I should seem
to play the philosopher, by reason of my silence. Only, I do not promise to
answer other questions you may raise. This one, as to loving God, I will deal
with as He shall teach me; for it is sweetest, it can be handled most safely,
and it will be most profitable. Keep the others for wiser men.
Why we should love God and the measure of that love
You want me to tell you why God is to be loved
and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure
of love due to Him is immeasurable love. Is this plain? Doubtless, to a thoughtful
man; but I am debtor to the unwise also. A word to the wise is sufficient;
but I must consider simple folk too. Therefore I set myself joyfully to explain
more in detail what is meant above.
We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold
reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable. When one asks,
Why should I love God? he may mean, What is lovely in God? or What shall I
gain by loving God? In either case, the same sufficient cause of love exists,
namely, God Himself.
And first, of His title
to our love [i.e., his right/claim to it]. Could any title be greater
than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what
better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s
claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I
Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think
who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved? ... And how great was this
love of His? ...St. John answers: ‘God
so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth
in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John
3.16). St. Paul adds: ‘He spared not His own Son, but delivered
Him up for us all’ (Rom.
8.32); and the son says of Himself, ‘Greater love hath no
man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John
This is the claim which God the holy, the supreme,
the omnipotent, has upon men, defiled and base and weak. Some one may urge
that this is true of mankind, but not of angels. True, since for angels it
was not needful. He who succored men in their time of need, preserved angels
from such need; and even as His love for sinful men wrought wondrously in them
so that they should not remain sinful, so that same love which in equal measure
He poured out upon angels kept them altogether free from sin.
What greater incentives Christians have, more than the heathen,
to love God
The faithful know how much need they have of Jesus
and Him crucified; but though they wonder and rejoice at the ineffable love
made manifest in Him, they are not daunted at having no more than their own
poor souls to give in return for such great and condescending charity. They
love all the more, because they know themselves to be loved so exceedingly;
but to whom little is given the same loveth little (Luke
7.47). Neither Jew nor pagan feels the pangs of love as doth the
Church, which saith, ‘Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for
I am sick of love’ (Cant.
2.5). She 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 (Cant.
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’ (Phil.
2.10). The earth under the ancient curse brought forth thorns and
thistles; but now the Church beholds it laughing with flowers and restored
by the grace of a new benediction. Mindful of the verse, ‘My heart danceth
for joy, and in my song will I praise Him’, she refreshes herself with
the fruits of His Passion which she gathers from the Tree of the Cross, and
with the flowers of His Resurrection whose fragrance invites the frequent visits
of her Spouse.
Then it is that He exclaims, ‘Behold thou art
fair, My beloved, yea pleasant: also our bed is green’ (Cant.
1.16). She shows her desire for His coming and whence she hopes
to obtain it; not because of her own merits but because of the flowers of that
field which God hath blessed. Christ who willed to be conceived and brought
up in Nazareth, that is, the town of branches, delights in such blossoms. Pleased
by such heavenly fragrance the bridegroom rejoices to revisit the heart’s
chamber when He finds it adorned with fruits and decked with flowers—that
is, meditating on the mystery of His Passion or on the glory of His Resurrection...
...The Bride [i.e., the believing soul] desires to
be stayed with flagons and comforted with apples, because she knows how easily
the warmth of love can languish and grow cold; but such helps are only until
she has entered into the bride chamber. There she will receive His long-desired
caresses even as she sighs, ‘His
left hand is under my head and His right hand doth embrace me’ (Cant.
2.6). Then she will perceive how far the embrace of the right hand
excels all sweetness, and that the left hand with which He at first caressed
her cannot be compared to it. She will understand what she has heard: ‘It
is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing’ (John
6.63). She will prove what she hath read: ‘My memorial is
sweeter than honey, and mine inheritance than the honey-comb’ (Ecclus.
24.20). What is written elsewhere, ‘The memorial of Thine
abundant kindness shall be showed’ (Ps.
145.7), refers doubtless to those of whom the Psalmist had said
just before: ‘One generation shall praise Thy works unto another and
declare Thy power’ (Ps.
145.4). Among us on the earth there is His memory; but in the Kingdom
of heaven His very Presence. That Presence is the joy of those who have already
attained to beatitude; the memory is the comfort of us who are still wayfarers,
journeying towards the Fatherland.
Of the first degree of love: wherein man loves God for self’s
Love is one of the four natural affections, which
it is needless to name since everyone knows them. And because love is natural,
it is only right to love the Author of nature first of all. Hence comes the
first and great commandment, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ But
nature is so frail and weak that necessity compels her to love herself first;
and this is carnal love, wherewith man loves himself first and selfishly, as
it is written, ‘That was not first which is spiritual but that which
is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual’ (I
Cor. 15.46). This is not as the precept ordains but as nature directs: ‘No
man ever yet hated his own flesh’ (Eph.
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’. And
this is right: for he who shares our nature should share our love, itself the
fruit of nature. Wherefore if a man find it a burden, I will not say only to
relieve his brother’s needs, but to minister to his brother’s pleasures,
let him mortify those same affections in himself, lest he become a transgressor.
He may cherish himself as tenderly as he chooses, if only he remembers to show
the same indulgence to his neighbor. This is the curb of temperance imposed
on thee, O man, by the law of life and conscience, lest thou shouldest follow
thine own lusts to destruction, or become enslaved by those passions which
are the enemies of thy true welfare. Far better divide thine enjoyments with
thy neighbor than with these enemies. And if, after the counsel of the son
of Sirach, thou goest not after thy desires but refrainest thyself from thine
18.30); if according to the apostolic precept having food and raiment
thou art therewith content (I
Tim. 6.8), then thou wilt find it easy to abstain from fleshly lusts
which war against the soul, and to divide with thy neighbors what thou hast
refused to thine own desires. That is a temperate and righteous love which
practices self-denial in order to minister to a brother’s necessity.
So our selfish love grows truly social, when it includes our neighbors in its
...But if we are to love our neighbors as we ought,
we must have regard to God also: for it is only in God that we can pay that
debt of love aright. Now a man cannot love his neighbor in God, except he love
God Himself; wherefore we must love God first, in order to love our neighbors
Of the second and third degrees of love
So then in the beginning man loves God, not for
God’s sake, but for his own. It is something for him to know how little
he can do by himself and how much by God’s help, and in that knowledge
to order himself rightly towards God, his sure support. But when tribulations,
recurring again and again, constrain him to turn to God for unfailing help,
would not even a heart as hard as iron, as cold as marble, be softened by the
goodness of such a Savior, so that he would love God not altogether selfishly,
but because He is God? Let frequent troubles drive us to frequent supplications;
and surely, tasting, we must see how gracious the Lord is (Ps.
34.8). Thereupon His goodness once realized draws us to love Him
unselfishly, yet more than our own needs impel us to love Him selfishly: even
as the Samaritans told the woman who announced that it was Christ who was at
the well: ‘Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard
Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the savior of the world’ (John
4.42). We likewise bear the same witness to our own fleshly nature,
saying, ‘No longer do we love God because of our necessity, but because
we have tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is’. Our temporal wants
have a speech of their own, proclaiming the benefits they have received from
God’s favor. Once this is recognized it will not be hard to fulfill the
commandment touching love to our neighbors; for whosoever loves God aright
loves all God’s creatures. Such love is pure, and finds no burden in
the precept bidding us purify our souls, in obeying the truth through the Spirit
unto unfeigned love of the brethren (I
Peter 1.22). Loving as he ought, he counts that command only just.
Such love is thankworthy, since it is spontaneous; pure, since it is shown
not in word nor tongue, but in deed and truth (I
John 3.18); just, since it repays what it has received. Whoso loves
in this fashion, loves even as he is loved, and seeks no more his own but the
things which are Christ’s, even as Jesus sought not His own welfare,
but ours, or rather ourselves. Such was the psalmist’s love when he sang: ‘O
give thanks unto the Lord, for He is gracious’ (Ps.
118.1). Whosoever praises God for His essential goodness, and not
merely because of the benefits He has bestowed, does really love God for God’s
sake, and not selfishly. The psalmist was not speaking of such love when he
said: ‘So long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak good of
thee’(Ps. 49.18). The third degree of love, we have now seen, is to love
God on His own account, solely because He is God.
Of the fourth degree of love: wherein man does not even love
self save for God’s sake
How blessed is he who reaches the fourth degree
of love, wherein one loves himself only in God! Thy righteousness standeth
like the strong mountains, O God. Such love as this is God’s hill, in
the which it pleaseth Him to dwell. ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of
the Lord?’ ‘O that I had wings like a dove; for then would I flee
away and be at rest.’ ‘At Salem is His tabernacle; and His dwelling
in Sion.’ ‘Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Mesech! ’ (Ps.
24.3; 55.6; 76.2; 120.5). When shall this flesh and blood, this
earthen vessel which is my soul’s tabernacle, attain thereto? When shall
my soul, rapt with divine love and altogether self-forgetting, yea, become
like a broken vessel, yearn wholly for God, and, joined unto the Lord, be one
spirit with Him? When shall she exclaim, ‘My flesh and my heart faileth;
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever’ (Ps.
73.26). I would count him blessed and holy to whom such rapture
has been vouchsafed in this mortal life, for even an instant to lose thyself,
as if thou wert emptied and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love;
it is celestial. But if sometimes a poor mortal feels that heavenly joy for
a rapturous moment, then this wretched life envies his happiness, the malice
of daily trifles disturbs him, this body of death weighs him down, the needs
of the flesh are imperative, the weakness of corruption fails him, and above
all brotherly love calls him back to duty. Alas! that voice summons him to
re-enter his own round of existence; and he must ever cry out lamentably, ‘O
Lord, I am oppressed: undertake for me’ (Isa.
38.14); and again, ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver
me from the body of this death?’ (Rom.
Seeing that the Scripture saith, God has made all
for His own glory (Isa.
43.7), surely His creatures ought to conform themselves, as much
as they can, to His will. In Him should all our affections center, so that
in all things we should seek only to do His will, not to please ourselves.
And real happiness will come, not in gratifying our desires or in gaining transient
pleasures, but in accomplishing God’s will for us: even as we pray every
day: ‘Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt.
6.10). O chaste and holy love! O sweet and gracious affection! O
pure and cleansed purpose, thoroughly washed and purged from any admixture
of selfishness, and sweetened by contact with the divine will! To reach this
state is to become godlike. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself,
and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated red-hot,
becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant
with sun-beams, seems not so much to be illuminated as to be light itself;
so in the saints all human affections melt away by some unspeakable transmutation
into the will of God. For how could God be all in all, if anything merely human
remained in man? The substance will endure, but in another beauty, a higher
power, a greater glory. When will that be? Who will see, who possess it? ‘When
shall I come to appear before the presence of God?’ (Ps.
42.2). ‘My heart hath talked of Thee, Seek ye My face: Thy
face, Lord, will I seek’ (Ps.
27.8). Lord, thinkest Thou that I, even I shall see Thy holy temple?
In this life, I think, we cannot fully and perfectly
obey that precept, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind’ (Luke
10.27). For here the heart must take thought for the body; and the
soul must energize the flesh; and the strength must guard itself from impairment.
And by God’s favor, must seek to increase. It is therefore impossible
to offer up all our being to God, to yearn altogether for His face, so long
as we must accommodate our purposes and aspirations to these fragile, sickly
bodies of ours. Wherefore the soul may hope to possess the fourth degree of
love, or rather to be possessed by it, only when it has been clothed upon with
that spiritual and immortal body, which will be perfect, peaceful, lovely,
and in everything wholly subjected to the spirit. And to this degree no human
effort can attain: it is in God’s power to give it to whom He wills.
Then the soul will easily reach that highest stage, because no lusts of the
flesh will retard its eager entrance into the joy of its Lord, and no troubles
will disturb its peace. May we not think that the holy martyrs enjoyed this
grace, in some degree at least, before they laid down their victorious bodies?
Surely that was immeasurable strength of love which enraptured their souls,
enabling them to laugh at fleshly torments and to yield their lives gladly.
But even though the frightful pain could not destroy their peace of mind, it
must have impaired somewhat its perfection.
Of the attainment of this perfection of love only at the resurrection
What of the souls already released from their
bodies? We believe that they are overwhelmed in that vast sea of eternal light
and of luminous eternity. But no one denies that they still hope and desire
to receive their bodies again: whence it is plain that they are not yet wholly
transformed, and that something of self remains yet unsurrendered. Not until
death is swallowed up in victory, and perennial light overflows the uttermost
bounds of darkness, not until celestial glory clothes our bodies, can our souls
be freed entirely from self and give themselves up to God. For until then souls
are bound to bodies, if not by a vital connection of sense, still by natural
affection; so that without their bodies they cannot attain to their perfect
consummation, nor would they if they could. And although there is no defect
in the soul itself before the restoration of its body, since it has already
attained to the highest state of which it is by itself capable, yet the spirit
would not yearn for reunion with the flesh if without the flesh it could be
And finally, ‘Right dear in the sight of
the Lord is the death of His saints’ (Ps.
116.15). But if their death is precious, what must such a life as
theirs be! No wonder that the body shall seem to add fresh glory to the spirit;
for though it is weak and mortal, it has availed not a little for mutual help.
How truly he spake who said, ‘All things work together for good to them
that love God’ (Rom.
8.28). The body is a help to the soul that loves God, even when
it is ill, even when it is dead, and all the more when it is raised again from
the dead: for illness is an aid to penitence; death is the gate of rest; and
the resurrection will bring consummation. So, rightly, the soul would not be
perfected without the body, since she recognizes that in every condition it
has been needful to her good.
The flesh then is a good and faithful comrade
for a good soul: since even when it is a burden it assists; when the help ceases,
the burden ceases too; and when once more the assistance begins, there is no
longer a burden. The first state is toilsome, but fruitful; the second is idle,
but not monotonous: the third is glorious. Hear how the Bridegroom in Canticles
bids us to this threefold progress: ‘Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink
abundantly, O beloved’ (Cant.
5.1). He offers food to those who are laboring with bodily toil;
then He calls the resting souls whose bodies are laid aside, to drink; and
finally He urges those who have resumed their bodies to drink abundantly. Surely
those He styles ‘beloved’ must overflow with charity; and that
is the difference between them and the others, whom He calls not ‘beloved’ but ‘friends’.
Those who yet groan in the body are dear to Him, according to the love that
they have; those released from the bonds of flesh are dearer because they have
become readier and abler to love than hitherto. But beyond either of these
classes are those whom He calls ‘beloved’: for they have received
the second garment, that is, their glorified bodies, so that now nothing of
self remains to hinder or disturb them, and they yield themselves eagerly and
entirely to loving God. This cannot be so with the others; for the first have
the weight of the body to bear, and the second desires the body again with
something of selfish expectation.
At first then the faithful soul eats her bread,
but alas! in the sweat of her face. Dwelling in the flesh, she walks as yet
by faith, which must work through love. As faith without works is dead, so
work itself is food for her; even as our Lord saith, ‘My meat is to do
the will of Him that sent Me’ (John
4.34). When the flesh is laid aside, she eats no more the bread
of carefulness, but is allowed to drink deeply of the wine of love, as if after
a repast. But the wine is not yet unmingled; even as the Bridegroom saith in
another place, ‘I have drunk My wine with My milk’ (Cant.
5.1). For the soul mixes with the wine of God’s love the milk
of natural affection, that is, the desire for her body and its glorification.
She glows with the wine of holy love which she has drunk; but she is not yet
all on fire, for she has tempered the potency of that wine with milk. The unmingled
wine would enrapture the soul and make her wholly unconscious of self; but
here is no such transport for she is still desirous of her body. When that
desire is appeased, when the one lack is supplied, what should hinder her then
from yielding herself utterly to God, losing her own likeness and being made
like unto Him? At last she attains to that chalice of the heavenly wisdom,
of which it is written, ‘My cup shall be full.’ Now indeed she
is refreshed with the abundance of the house of God, where all selfish, carking
care is done away, and where, for ever safe, she drinks the fruit of the vine,
new and pure, with Christ in the Kingdom of His Father (Matt.
It is Wisdom who spreads this threefold supper
where all the repast is love; Wisdom who feeds the toilers, who gives drink
to those who rest, who floods with rapture those that reign with Christ. Even
as at an earthly banquet custom and nature serve meat first and then wine,
so here. Before death, while we are still in mortal flesh, we eat the labors
of our hands, we swallow with an effort the food so gained; but after death,
we shall begin eagerly to drink in the spiritual life and finally, reunited
to our bodies, and rejoicing in fullness of delight, we shall be refreshed
with immortality. This is what the Bridegroom means when He saith: ‘Eat,
O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.’ Eat before death;
begin to drink after death; drink abundantly after the resurrection. Rightly
are they called beloved who have drunk abundantly of love; rightly do they
drink abundantly who are worthy to be brought to the marriage supper of the
Lamb, eating and drinking at His table in His Kingdom (Rev.
22.30). At that supper, He shall present to Himself a glorious Church,
not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing (Eph.
5.27). Then truly shall He refresh His beloved; then He shall give
them drink of His pleasures, as out of the river (Ps.
36.8). While the Bridegroom clasps the Bride in tender, pure embrace,
then the rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God (Ps.
46.4). And this refers to the Son of God Himself, who will come
forth and serve them, even as He hath promised; so that in that day the righteous
shall be glad and rejoice before God: they shall also be merry and joyful (Ps.
68.3). Here indeed is appeasement without weariness: here never-quenched
thirst for knowledge, without distress; here eternal and infinite desire which
knows no want; here, finally, is that sober inebriation which comes not from
drinking new wine but from enjoying God (Acts
2.13). The fourth degree of love is attained for ever when we love
God only and supremely, when we do not even love ourselves except for God’s
sake; so that He Himself is the reward of them that love Him, the everlasting
reward of an everlasting love.
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