The Ascent of Love

December 12, 2006

SunriseRecently in one of my classes, I have discovered a new passion for some of the early patristic and medieval fathers of the church.

I think it is fair to say that we have lost some of the passion of the tradition of the church– the “orthodoxy” of the tradition has been masked by the tearing away of the spiritual passion that the enlightenment brought to us.  Looking at St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, we can see that one of the founders of the Cistercian order had a lot of passion.  Orthodoxy in this sense is very appealing.

Bernard describes an “Ascent of Love,” in which we go through a journey of spirituality that ascends through four higher and higher stages of love, each building upon the prior.  No stage of love is bad– it is a journey.  There is nothing wrong with being at the first stage, or the second, or so forth.  Each stage is just a successive gift from God and is valued as such.

The first stage is the love of the self for one’s own sake.  In our current modern culture, this may sound selfish, but that is not Bernard’s intent.  Again, there is nothing wrong with this first stage of love.  It is a gift from God, just as we are a gift to ourselves from God.  It is only with this love of self that we are able to fully love our neighbor.  This should not be confused with inordinate love of self– it is intended as true and honorable self-love– integrity.

Love of self that leads to love of neighbor inevitably leads to the second stage of Bernard’s ascent– love of God for one’s own sake.  Once we begin to see everything around us and how good creation is, we start to appreciate what God has done for us and therefore we love God for what he has done for us; for how God affects our lives.

That stage will lead us to the third stage, which is love of God for God’s sake.  God is so attractive, God is so wonderful, that we will fall in love with God.  Bernard uses Song of Songs to describe this love– almost romantic language because the love and desire of God becomes so appealing.

Finally, we are so in love with God that we begin to love everything for God’s sake, including ourselves.  We are able to do this because our love of God is so deep that we love everything God loves, which includes ourselves along with the rest of creation.  One-ness with creation– this is what St. Augustine called “freedom.”  So we nearly end up back where we started, but with a different perspective.

I find this to be a lovely picture of the spiritual journey.  I find it lovely because it is so focused on the love that God offers us and it is so hopeful of our ability to commune with God.

To be sure, understanding Bernard’s model requires the ability to overcome a lot of aesthetic stuff that I do not find useful– he was a monk and for Bernard the ability to ascend depended on the ability to remove oneself from the “material world”.  I think the modern lesson to that might be to live in simplicity, not necessarily to reclude to a monastery.  At any rate, I think after 1000 years this model still is a lovely one, and has much to be offered.  Maybe orthodoxy isn’t so bad after all when it is portrayed correctly.



One Response to “The Ascent of Love”

  1. Tomas Says:

    Thank you for the article. I fully agree with you that the modern lesson is to live in simplicity. Yet, what does this mean?

    We sense ourselves wise enough to discus about orthodoxy, for example. We are used to make various comparisons and they look wise.
    Unfortunately, current understanding of the intellectualness, of our fitness to teach in Universities is based on our knowledge of what was said by one or other but not on our personal response to God. Competency of our words is measured too according our social status (the documents we have) but not the real faith.
    It is no wonder that such thing as a passion looks like the miracle currently.
    However, is there any surprise? Our employers didn’t ask for what we believe, but the documents that could prove our competence. And we have the society of the high educated who even forget such thing as possibility to have PERSONAL faith.

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