St. Bernard built a way of life that flowed from Chapter 73 of the Rule of St. Benedict. In this final chapter, St. Benedict urges monks to learn the discipline of the Christian life he has presented because it is a good beginning, the minimum needed to make progress in a life devoted to Christ. Once one makes a good beginning, Benedict explains, “You can set out for the loftier summits.”
St. Bernard devoted himself to encouraging contemplatives to go beyond the minimum and progress to the summit of spiritual maturity. This summit is characterized by love. [The first kind of love, love of self for one’s own sake, is foundational for the spiritual life.] This kind of love leads to a love of God. Namely, in order to really love one’s self, we find ourselves turning to God and asking for his help. When we begin to perceive how good He is to us, we come to love Him because of what He has done for our sakes. To live a life out of this kind of love of God is very good. Bernard however sees that the Lord has called us to something even more beautiful. Through the grace of Christ given us, we have the possibility to learn to love not only for our own sakes, but for God’s own sake. In this kind of love, we glimpse the hidden source of Christian contemplation and mission.
What does it mean to love God for God’s own sake? This is to begin to see Him quite apart from anything that He has done for us. Love is beautiful and God is Love. To behold Him, to cherish his love in itself is not within our natural power, but we were created to be open to this vision. When we sit in silence before the Lord, wasting time in his presence, we open ourselves to God’s power to raise us above ourselves. Contemplative prayer is this openness to God. Such prayer is receptive to a subtle movement of the Holy Spirit by which He prays in our hearts. When we permit the Holy Spirit to do this, He communicates a new kind of love, a divine love. It is with this divine love, the love God has for himself, that we begin to see, to contemplate the beauty of the Lord from His own perspective.
St. Bernard describes this kind of prayer as “tasting” the goodness of the Lord. One might think that this was the highest form of love – loving God for his own sake. But Bernard believes that tasting the goodness of the Lord leads to an even more profound kind of love. In this experience, we find ourselves moved no longer by what we think we need for ourselves or those needs we believe those we love suffer. Instead, we are touched by the loving desires in the very heart of God. We find ourselves pierced to the heart by those things for which the Lord himself yearns because His hopes and dreams are beautiful and wonderful to behold. A new passion envelops us and our lives are ignited with the fire of God’s love. As we learn to live fired up by the very passion of the heart of God, St. Bernard says we begin to love ourselves for God’s own sake.
The self for St. Bernard is not the same as the “ego” or “me.” The self he describes is always an “us.” He always understands the human person saved by Christ as being in communion with others. Those who believe in Christ are brought into communion with his whole mystical body. As a result, loving one’s self always includes loving all those Christ has entrusted to us.
In the heights of love, we learn to love one another with the divine love the Lord has had for us from before the foundation of the world. Just as God yearns for us to thrive in his love, we learn to live with this same passion for ourselves and for one another. We see in each other the beauty of God’s holiness and we yearn with the same desire that burns in the heart of God for that beauty to be fully manifest. Christian charity, its orientation to serve, is not merely a wishful and naive human philanthropy. It burns with something this world cannot contain. In St. Bernard’s mystical theology, the truth of our humanity is realized in this burning divine love within us.
Art: Saint Bernard, about 1469, Taddeo Crivelli, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.
Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.