Introductory Note:

We are bombarded from every angle by notions of love that are often superficial and sometimes destructive. Bernard of Clairvaux offers a corrective both demanding and life-giving, inviting us to a formative progression through his “four degrees of love.”

Carolyn Arends
Director of Education, Renovaré

Intro­duc­tion to the Author

Bernard (10901153) was one of the great lead­ers in the his­to­ry of the Church. He was an elo­quent speak­er and con­sid­ered by many to be one of the holi­est indi­vid­u­als who ever lived. He grew up in Dijon, France, and at the age of twen­ty-two entered as a novice in the monastery of Cîteaux. Three years lat­er he was appoint­ed to super­vise a group of his fel­low monks in the new­ly found­ed monastery at Clair­vaux. Though he was offered high posi­tions in the church, Bernard remained at Clair­vaux until his death.

Thanks to care­ful preser­va­tion over the cen­turies, many of Bernard’s writ­ings have sur­vived today. His works had a pro­found influ­ence on both Mar­tin Luther and John Calvin. The fol­low­ing read­ing is tak­en from his well-known work, his trea­tise On the Love of God. In it Bernard inci­sive­ly out­lines his famous four degrees of love.”

Excerpts from On the Love of God

1. Why God Should be Loved

You ask me, Why should God be loved?” I answer: the rea­son for lov­ing God is God him­self. And why should God be loved for his own sake? Sim­ply because no one could be more just­ly loved than God, no one deserves our love more. Some may ques­tion if God deserves our love or if they might have some­thing to gain by lov­ing him. The answer to both ques­tions is yes, but I find no oth­er wor­thy rea­son for lov­ing him except himself.

2. The First Degree of Love: Love of Self for Self’s Sake

Love is a nat­ur­al human affec­tion. It comes from God. Hence the first and great­est com­mand­ment is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” But human nature is weak and there­fore com­pelled to love itself and serve itself first. In the human realm peo­ple love them­selves for their own sake. This is plant­ed with­in us for who ever hat­ed his own self?

But if this love of our­selves becomes too lav­ish, it will over­flow its nat­ur­al bound­aries through exces­sive love of plea­sure. Peo­ple can eas­i­ly become slaves to the soul’s ene­my: lust. This love of self is held in check by the com­mand to love our neigh­bor. If we can­not love our neigh­bor because of our love of self, then we must restrain our lusts and give to our neighbor’s needs. Your love will then be tem­per­ate when you take from your­self and give to your neighbor.

… In order to love our neigh­bor we must see that God is the cause of our love. How can we have a pure love for our neigh­bor if we do not love him in God? And you can­not love your neigh­bor unless you love God. God must be loved first in order that we may love our neigh­bor in God.

3. The Sec­ond Degree of Love: Love of God for Self­’s Sake

God, there­fore, who makes every­thing that is good, makes him­self to be loved. He does it as fol­lows: first, God bless­es us with his pro­tec­tion. When we live free from trou­ble we are hap­py, but in our pride we may con­clude that we are respon­si­ble for our secu­ri­ty. Then, when we suf­fer some calami­ty, some storm in our lives, we turn to God and ask his help, call­ing upon him in times of trou­ble. This is how we who only love our­selves first begin to love God. We will begin to love God even if it is for our own sake. We love God because we have learned that we can do all things through him, and with­out him we can do nothing.

4. The Third Degree of Love: Love of God for God’s Sake

In the first degree of love we love our­selves for our own sake. In the sec­ond degree of love we love God for our own sake, chiefly because he has pro­vid­ed for us and res­cued us. But if tri­als and tribu­la­tions con­tin­ue to come upon us, every time God brings us through, even if our hearts were made of stone, we will begin to be soft­ened because of the grace of the Res­cuer. Thus, we begin to love God not mere­ly for our own sakes, but for himself.

In order to arrive at this we must con­tin­u­al­ly go to God with our needs and pray. In those prayers the grace of God is tast­ed, and by fre­quent tast­ing it is proved to us how sweet the Lord is. Thus it hap­pens that once God’s sweet­ness has been tast­ed, it draws us to the pure love of God more than our needs com­pel us to love him. Thus we begin to say, We now love God, not for our neces­si­ty, for we our­selves have tast­ed and know how sweet the Lord is.”

When we begin to feel this, it will not be hard to ful­fill the sec­ond com­mand­ment: to love our neigh­bor. For those who tru­ly love God in this way also love the things of God. Also, it becomes eas­i­er to be obe­di­ent in all of the com­mands of God. We begin to love God’s com­mands and embrace them.

This love is pure because it is dis­in­ter­est­ed (i.e., not offered in order to obtain some­thing). It is pure because it is not mere­ly in our words that we begin to serve, but in our actions. We love because we are loved. We care for oth­ers because Jesus cares for us.

We have obtained this degree when we can say, Give praise to the Lord for he is good, not because he is good to me, but because he is good.” Thus we tru­ly love God for God’s sake and not for our own. The third degree of love is the love by which God is now loved for his very self.

5. The Fourth Degree of Love: Love of Self for God’s Sake

Blessed are we who expe­ri­ence the fourth degree of love where­in we love our­selves for God’s sake. Such expe­ri­ences are rare and come only for a moment. In a man­ner of speak­ing, we lose our­selves as though we did not exist, utter­ly uncon­scious of our­selves and emp­tied of ourselves.

If for even a moment we expe­ri­ence this kind of love, we will then know the pain of hav­ing to return to this world and its oblig­a­tions as we are recalled from the state of con­tem­pla­tion. In turn­ing back to our­selves we will feel as if we are suf­fer­ing as we return into the mor­tal state in which we were called to live.

But dur­ing those moments we will be of one mind with God, and our wills in one accord with God. The prayer, Thy will be done,” will be our prayer and our delight. Just as a lit­tle drop of water mixed with a lot of wine seems to entire­ly lose its own iden­ti­ty as it takes on the taste and col­or of the wine; just as iron, heat­ed and glow­ing, looks very much like fire, hav­ing lost its orig­i­nal appear­ance: just as air flood­ed with the light of the sun is trans­formed into the same splen­dor of the light so that it appears to be light itself, so it is like for those who melt away from them­selves and are entire­ly trans­fused into the will of God.

This per­fect love of God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength will not hap­pen until we are no longer com­pelled to think about our­selves and attend to the body’s imme­di­ate needs. Only then can the soul attend to God com­plete­ly. This is why in the present body we inhab­it this is dif­fi­cult to main­tain. But it is with­in God’s pow­er to give such an expe­ri­ence to whom he wills, and it is not attained by our own efforts.

6. Enter­ing into the First, Sec­ond, and Third Degrees of Love

What are the four degrees of love? First, we love our­selves for our own sake; since we are unspir­i­tu­al and of the flesh we can­not have an inter­est in any­thing that does not relate to our­selves. When we begin to see that we can­not sub­sist by our­selves, we begin to seek God for our own sakes. This is the sec­ond degree of love; we love God, but only for our own inter­ests. But if we begin to wor­ship and come to God again and again by med­i­tat­ing, by read­ing, by prayer, and by obe­di­ence, lit­tle by lit­tle God becomes known to us through expe­ri­ence. We enter into a sweet famil­iar­i­ty with God, and by tast­ing how sweet the Lord is we pass into the third degree of love so that now we love God, not for our own sake, but for him­self. It should be not­ed that in this third degree we will stand still for a very long time.

7. Can We Attain the Fourth Degree of Love?

I am not cer­tain that the fourth degree of love in which we love our­selves only for the sake of God may be per­fect­ly attained in this life. But, when it does hap­pen, we will expe­ri­ence the joy of the Lord and be for­get­ful of our­selves in a won­der­ful way. We are, for those moments, one mind and one spir­it with God.

I am of the opin­ion that this is what the prophet meant when he said: I will enter into the pow­er of the Lord: O Lord I will be mind­ful of Thy jus­tice alone.” He felt, cer­tain­ly, that when he entered into the spir­i­tu­al pow­ers of the Lord he would have laid aside self and his whole being would, in the spir­it, be mind­ful of the jus­tice of the Lord alone.

When we attain the fourth degree of love, then the net of char­i­ty which now, drawn through this great and vast sea, does not cease to gath­er togeth­er fish of every kind, when brought at last to the shore cast­ing forth the bad, will retain only the good. Still, I do not know if we can attain this degree in this life. We live in a world of sor­row and tears and we expe­ri­ence the mer­cy and com­fort of God only in that con­text. How can we be mind­ful of mer­cy when the jus­tice of God alone will be remem­bered? Where there is no place for mis­ery or occa­sion for pity, sure­ly there can be no feel­ing of compassion.


If any­one deserves to stand beside St. John as an apos­tle of love,” it has to be Bernard. He wrote some eighty-six ser­mons on the Song of Solomon as an alle­go­ry of divine/​human love. His beau­ti­ful hymn, Jesus the Very Thought of Thee,” rever­ber­ates with the lan­guage of divine love.

O hope of every con­trite heart, O joy of all the meek;
To those who fall, how kind thou art! How good to those who seek!
But what to those who find? Ah, this No tongue nor pen can show;
The love of Jesus, what it is None but His loved ones know.

How very appro­pri­ate of Bernard to remind us of the cen­tral­i­ty of love. We so eas­i­ly ele­vate oth­er things to the place of first impor­tance: our big bud­gets and impres­sive build­ings, our ded­i­cat­ed ser­vice to the world, our doc­tri­nal eccen­tric­i­ties. But Bernard cuts through all our ego-strut­ting activ­i­ty and calls us again to love God in puri­ty of heart, in sin­cer­i­ty of soul, in holi­ness of life.

—Richard J. Foster

Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.).

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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