Bernard was twenty-two when he walked into the monastery of Cîteaux in Dijon, France. Three years later, he would help establish a new Benedictine community named Claire Vallée or Clairvaux (thus the name Bernard of Clairvaux).
Bernard’s times were those of religious extremes. He tended toward an extreme devotion to Mary. He was also a prominent figure behind the second Christian crusade, recruited by the Pope and King of France to rally new crusaders.
Bernard is also interesting because he held to a nearly Protestant theology of justification (hundreds of years before Luther or Calvin). But, perhaps his greatest legacy for us today is his Four Degrees of Love.
- Love of Self, for Self’s Sake – First Degree
- Love of God, for Self’s Sake – Second Degree
- Love of God, for God’s Sake – Third Degree
- Love of Self, for God’s Sake – Fourth Degree
Many of us are able to love ourselves, or even love God for our own sake. Some of us are able to love God for God’s sake, but it is this deepest degree that is most difficult.
This seems to fly in the face of conventional Christian thinking. Isn’t agape love, Christ-like love, the kind of love that empties itself of self-love? Maybe we should be careful not to confuse self-interest, with self-love.
When I love myself not for myself, but in response to God, he is my interest. When I love myself not for myself, but for my wife’s interest, I am giving a precious gift to her. She can count on my confidence and my healthy sense of self-worth… one that is based on an unchanging identity as God’s creation and God’s child. It is nothing short of giving her the gift of my peace.
In the opposite sense, self-deprecation and despair are forms of self-interest that take away from my love for others. My love and actions are actually motivated by a need for identity and self-esteem, but it is “looking for love in all the wrong places.” It becomes an endless cycle until I do the real work of loving myself. As one professor told me, “never place your identity in something you can lose.” In fact, I don’t think you can really love God or others purely until you take a long hard look in the mirror and fall in love!
Bernard writes, “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.”
The spirituality of the Four Degrees of Love is of the potent Medieval kind, but it still works today. So go ahead and love yourself for goodness sake! The people around you will thank you.