Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Love, Marriage and St. Bernard of Clairvaux

In these days the state of California is being tested at some fairly fundamental levels. The outcome of proposition 8 in the election of 2008 was positive for the preservation of the definition of the state of marriage as between one man and one woman, yet this result is being tested in the courts. For a good summation of the ongoing scuffle, I direct the reader to Catholic San Francisco, where the leader of Catholics for the Common Good, Bill May, recently wrote an interesting piece on the summation of the court case:

Reading the article, especially the final paragraph, I mentally remarked on a comment Bill made elsewhere about the case, in that there needs to be an understanding of what it means to be human, "the Christian view, made in the image and likeness of the Trinity, made for relationship, made for love . . ."

This reminded me of the work of St. Bernard of Clairvaux back in the 12th century. He speaks of the degrees of love and his testimony is worth considering in light of the court case. The first degree of love is the crudest and the one we unfortunately find ourselves in these days in the state of California - the materialist loving of ourselves for our own sake - 'That was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual' (I Cor. 15:46). This is what I call the black hole syndrome - where the swirling of preoccupation of self consumes one and those around one. It is a negative, fatiguing outlook with little hope possible. The fact that the state is trying to enshrine this way of living through tools like the 'self-esteem movement' begun in the 80's is a scary, one, indeed. 

The next level is loving God for our sake, and is the simplest way of approaching God. Going from level one to level two, especially in today's materialistic age, is a very hard step, for it implies that leap into faith which the world of today finds so unnerving . . . God becomes the supplier of what we need (the grace) so as to make our actions in the world happy ones. He gives life meaning, for of course true happiness and the peaceful heart that ensues comes only from God. The next level, loving God for His sake, is a natural result of loving God for our own sake. How can we not love God for His sake once we begin to see how much He does for us? He gives our lives new meaning. How do we express this love? We give to God by giving to others - that is the commandment Jesus calls us to over and over in the Gospel. Once we see it, there is no other way. St. Bernard writes, (On Loving God, Ch. 9) "Thereupon His goodness once realized draws us to love Him unselfishly, yet more than our own needs impel us to love Him selfishly". 

Yet there is still one more level of love, and that is love of ourselves for God's sake. 'When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?' Ps. 42:2. This is the most sublime fulfillment of Jesus' call to love in the Gospel. It is the hardest. Not to love ourselves because of what we do even if it is in the name of God. Not to love ourselves because of a list of accomplishments that are good in the world. But to love ourselves merely as a creature that God loves. To just BE and to rest in the love that God has for each of us. To let that love shine through, with no toting up of columns, no preconceptions, no comparisons. To love ourselves in all our frailty, all our bad judgments, all our iniquity - ONLY because of the fact that God loved us first and so much that he brought us into being flaws and all - now that is an ideal worth striving for! 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind' (Luke 10:27)
We are selling ourselves far too short in this state today, trying to paste on a false exterior love without a foundation of faith. Without a knowledge of the God who IS, we will not be able to experience these different forms of love, except the basest, carnal one, as St. Bernard calls it. The cause we are all striving for even if it is unspoken is to bring love to a populace yearning to know but not knowing where to look. The mechanisms for doing so are many, and marriage, which is a reflection of the unity of our God in His three persons, and the easiest way for us to see God in our lives as love, is a most important one. 

PS. I ran into St. Bernard the morning of our daughter's wedding, when I wrote a wedding prayer I called God is Love, and then learned that the feast that day was for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who "spoke so eloquently on love" as the Magnificat booklet put it. How could I not look him up after that prodding? To see another posting I have done on love, visit  the posting of January 31, 2010 on this blog.
Michele Coldiron
Executive Director,
California Catholic Women's Forum

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