I have done very little reading from the volumes of Christian literature generated over the two thousand years of history since Jesus walked physically among us. “Little” relative to the amount which exists and the bit of reading I have accomplished from authors I selected. My reading could never qualify as formal research. I have simply stumbled upon or sought out random questions that lead me into various volumes. Despite the brevity of this smattering of experience within Christian history, I have used such to grow in understanding. Here goes.
Somewhere along the way about ten years ago, my wife picked up a book of devotional essays that were taken from across the centuries. It is interesting to read these essays in one volume bringing a bit of illumination to Christian thinking in varied cultures and historical contexts. In this book (cited below) I met Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I had never heard, writing from 12th century Europe. My lack of knowledge is a clear function of experiencing Christianity largely within the Protestant framework of thought, which draws very little from church history after the time of Constantine and prior to the Protestant Reformation.
The author was a monk known as Bernard of Clairvaux, and though I knew nothing of him at the time, I have since learned he was a major player in many political and church related events of his day. Within such context, there is one very interesting fact about the man: he always refused promotion to higher ecclesiastical office. In reading the history, he undoubtedly was intelligent and influential; yet he began his work in the church of the day as a monk and finished his life’s work as a monk, though he had been one to work along side regents and popes.
“There (the abbey he founded) he remained abbot all his life,
despite many efforts to elevate him to higher ecclesiastical office.
A holy life, a reputation for miraculous cures, and unusual
eloquence made Bernard renowned, and he became the most
powerful religious influence in France and, in time, in all Western Europe.”
I read other Christian blogs and often find there debates on doctrine. I have come to a place in my own life that I am more interested in the fruits of the Spirit. I am not discounting the importance of sound teaching based on biblical text; but if that teaching does not produce something of the Kingdom of God growing evidently in the heart, is it valid? Anyway, back to what I wanted to tell you about Bernie and his journey. The history written of him speaks of humility and that to me speaks of Jesus. Folks who confess the Lord with their mouths and evidence His character in life are evidence of a profound reality, the Holy Spirit at work in mere humans. That gets my attention.
What I originally spotted about Bernard is what I wanted to mention foremost in this post. He taught something he called “The Four Degrees of Love.”
First Degree: love of self for self’s sake.
Second Degree: love of God for the self’s sake.
Third Degree: love of God for God’s sake.
Fourth Degree: love of self for God’s sake.
Foster and Smith. Devotional Classics. Renovare, San Francisco. c 1993 pp 41-2
Until I read this, I never fully understood love your neighbor as yourself. By that I mean, I had reached a place where I knew the Bible was true and everything it said. However, among the things which did not move beyond my intellectual comprehension, I could never quite divide within my own heart where I behaved selfishly as separated from loving myself. Honestly, hating me was my condition before I came to the Lord. That root lingered in my life for a long time. It took me a while to understand many things about the soul and mine in particular. Specifically, without loving myself for good reason--and that being as a function of my love of God--I could not begin to separate my selfishness from my motivations.
This was a part of my inward journey into love, which I now regard as essential to being an effective, loving Christian. Love cannot be imposed upon our hearts from the outside through teaching, demand, or social expectation. The inward life, the heart, is the bellwether of our outward experience.