In the wisdom of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, there is great reason to be confident as we begin to learn to love God. He is not ignorant of the fact that most of us often fall short in our efforts to seek God and live according to His commands. His exhortation stands, not on the quality of our own initiative, but on God. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux proposes that God Himself is the cause of loving God:
[God] is both the efficient and final cause. He Himself provides the occasion. He Himself creates the longing. He Himself fulfills the desire. He Himself causes Himself to be (or rather, to be made) such that He should be loved. He hopes to be so happily loved that no one will love Him in vain. His love both prepares and rewards ours. Kindly, He leads the way. He repays us justly. He is our sweet hope. He is riches to all how call upon Him. There is nothing better than Himself. He gave Himself in merit. He keeps Himself to be our reward. He gives Himself as food for holy souls. He sold himself to redeem captives. (On Loving God VI, 22.)
These words written to Aimeric, a Cardinal Archdeacon of Rome, provide a word of hope to anyone who is confronted by failure in the spiritual life. The origin of these thoughts were worked out some years before in a letter to the Carthusians. Apparently, whether we are active or contemplative in our style of life, the fundamental truths about loving God apply in the same way. In this passage, Saint Bernard invites us to stand on the primacy of God’s action in our lives: we can live a spiritual life because God Himself has ordered everything to make this possible.
The primacy of grace of God’s action in prayer, is fundamental in the effort to love God. The Lord draws our whole being and existence to Him as its ultimate end. The more we love Him and each other in Him, the more we become who and what we are meant to be. In the image and likeness of God, our very being finds rest in Him alone. Every other joy is tinged with sorrow and even fear until this most important joy is attained. If our hearts are given to anything else the way they ought to be given to the Lord, they remain unfulfilled like an unresolved strand of music. This is why the more we resist God, the more suffering we cause ourselves, and it is the reason that, as we discover how little we love God, we glimpse a sorrow that not only haunts our own hearts but the hearts of all those who have yet to see His Face.
God, however, resists us not because He does not love us but because He thwarts the proud. Our efforts to build our own towers of Babel end in the same alienating primordial catastrophe as man’s first effort to climb toward the absolute by his own effort. When we try to surmount the limits of our nature and greedily grasp for states of consciousness or spiritual experience, even when we attain such things, we only discover how much more we suffer His absence. The Lord’s saving love cannot be forced but no force can stop Him from loving those who humbly ask Him. At the same time, the more we attempt to surmount our humanity, the more we lessen our capacity to be human. When someone believes they can save themselves, why would they open their heart to God or give their heart in friendship, or go into the heart of one who suffers, or receive the heart of someone seeking shelter?
Before the astonishing generosity of the Living God, prayer becomes a matter of rendering oneself vulnerable to the Lord, a matter of opening the heart and welcoming the One who yearns to enter in. The moment we begin removing obstacles to His love in our lives, He flows into our innermost being. His presence is never static but always dynamic, always evoking a response and, at the same time, rendering the heart capable of making the response He evokes. If we feel our weakness, He flows into our weakness to be our strength so that even greater trials might be endured for His glory. If we hunger and thirst for His presence, He nourishes us in our hunger as real spiritual food so that we might have the strength to hunger and thirst for Him the more. His love is not indifferent but passionate, stirring and satisfying our deepest longings, if we will only avail ourselves to Him.
God’s love for us does not excuse us from the hard work or dedication that is owed to Him. Instead, realizing that our efforts are secondary and dependent on what God is about, helps us maintain that reverent humility and hope that seeking, finding and serving the Lord requires. It helps us enter into the logic of petitionary prayer, the humble cry for mercy Mercy does not fail to hear.
The soul that has dedicated its life to seeking and finding God is drawn to the boundless, surpassing, excessive love revealed by Christ Crucified. Saint Bernard knew that his own strength of effort in loving God was necessary not because anything was lacking in the love of God. Instead, he was convinced we could love the Lord with all our strength because He is always at work in us. If someone were ever to wonder how Saint Bernard knew that God’s love was this way, the answer would have to be that he knew the Risen Lord. He did not merely know about the Lord. Nor was he merely clever in the way he spoke about Him. Saint Bernard’s wisdom is filled with a living, personal knowledge of God, a vital awareness of His saving presence, a wisdom of heart shared between friends.
Art for this post on Bernard of Clairvaux and Loving God: Bernhard Von Clairvaux (Bernard of Clairvaux), circa 1267-1276, unknown artist, Initial B from a 13th century illuminated illuminated manuscript: Legenda Aurea (Keble MS 49, fol 162r); San Bernardo y la Virgen (Saint Bernard and the Virgin) also known as The Vision of St Bernard, Alonso Cano, ca 1645-1652; both PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.