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[COMMENT: I had heard this discussed probably over three decades ago at a conference, and am glad to have it here outlined. E. Fox]
On Loving God
Perhaps the insights of St Bernard of Clairvaux can help us. In his little book On the Love of God [De Diligendo Dei], he offers us a somewhat stylized scheme (to help us remember) of four stages in the growth in loving God; but the truth in it is profound and well worth pondering.
Because we are sinful and imperfect creatures, the place where all of us begin is the loving of oneís self. However, in this position we will come to realize for all kinds of reasons, not least the good of human life together in community, that we must have some love for the neighbor. And, in seeking to fulfill this obligation, we will recognize that without Godís help we cannot really begin to live a meaningful life and care for our fellow human beings. Though we do not yet know this, the image of God in man is marred by sin and thus functions only imperfectly at this stage within us; but yet it is the means of inner awakening and desire for God the Father through Jesus Christ by the Holy Ghost, and so is central to our pilgrimage in love.
As soon we begin to understand the need of God for the satisfactory conduct of our lives, then we will begin to love God. However, we shall be loving God not for Godís sake but for our own, for the help that we need and receive from God to live a reasonably satisfactory religious life. And, regrettably, this stage of loving God can be as far as we progress in the Christian life, even as we say our prayers, attend church and seek to keep Godís commandments.
In loving God for what he as our Creator and Redeemer gives and provides, we may begin (through the influence of the divine means of grace) to see that God as the LORD is supremely lovable in his Trinity and Unity, in his Being, Nature, Attributes, Revelation, Reconciliation and Redemption. That is, he is supremely lovable not primarily for what he bestows, but for WHO he really is towards his creatures and for his amazing Beauty and Glory in his Undivided and Holy Trinity in Unity. In progressing to this state, we as baptized believers do not cease to love God for his blessings and gifts. Rather, there is joined to this basic loving a deeper loving which adores God for who he is as the LORD our God. It is a loving of the Father through the love of the Son and with the love provided by the Holy Ghost. And, it is never individualistic but always personal and within the koinonia, the fellowship, of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
The fourth stage, which cannot be wholly reached and experienced in this life, is when we love ourselves only for the sake of God. That is, we are free of all selfishness, and filled with the love of God both towards his creatures and specifically towards himself. And this profound depth, height and width of loving can only be fully known and experienced when the Christian is redeemed, that is when he is perfected and glorified in his resurrection body and a member of the heavenly society in the new Jerusalem. That is, when he is fully restored in the image and likeness of God, and being such, he is a perfectly appreciative of, as well as a channel of, the love of God and so he loves in the name of God, the Holy Trinity, what God loves. And he does so through, in and with Christ who is the perfect Image of God and the One Mediator between God and man.
One advantage, amongst others, of this scheme is that it integrates eros and agape, by seeing the latter as a fulfillment of the former. That is, it begins where each of us is at the beginning Ė outside the direct influence of the means of grace and traces our path into the ecstasy of being overwhelmed by the Love that in the Holy Spirit unites the Father and the Son.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon President of the Prayer Book Society of the USA.
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