As important as inner stillness and the Jesus Prayer are, we can never lose sight of the goal of both: love.
For all that is wrong with me and with the world, God’s love is always greater. Seeing this requires that I truly repent. This isn’t a matter of looking in the mirror and saying “BAD!” Rather repentance worthy of the name means seeing myself as God sees me. Though I a sinner, what matters, even more, is that God loves me.
The medieval Catholic monastic reformer St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) helps us understand what it means to be loved and to love God. In On Loving God Bernard traces out the four degrees or stages of our journey from immature to mature love.
I begin this journey in self-love. Bernard doesn’t judge this harshly. Rather he sees it as a necessary concession to our fallen state. He writes that “nature is so frail and weak that it has to love itself first.” And so love at this stage means “loving oneself selfishly.” As he explains (#8)
“The spiritual does not come first. The natural comes first and is followed by the spiritual” (1 Corinthians 15.46). This is not what we are commanded, but what nature directs: “No one ever hated his own body” (Eph. 5.29).
Over time, though, the command to love my neighbor comes to play a role in our lives. This happens because I can’t love myself, even selfishly, without also loving those around me. I am to a greater or lesser degree dependent on my neighbors. Even if this doesn’t take the form of a material dependence, I still need the affection and support of others.
And so I grow, however faltering, in love for my neighbor.
Soon though I come to realize that I can’t really love my neighbor unless I also love God. What causes me to have this realization, according to Bernard, are the life’s troubles. These teach me the limits of human strength and my dependence not simply on my neighbor but on God. It is because we “suffer troubles” that we “begin to love God through our own love for ourselves.” As troubles wax and human strength wanes, we learn that “in God we can accomplish anything and without God we can do nothing.”
This leads us to the next two stages of love.
We begin to love God for our own sake and grow in time to love Him for His own sake.
If frequent troubles drive us to frequent prayer, surely we will taste and see how gracious the Lord is (Ps. 34.8). Then, realizing how good he is, we find ourselves drawn to love him unselfishly, even more powerfully than we are drawn by our own needs to love him selfishly (#9).
St Bernard has helped me understand that the great moral and spiritual problem of my life isn’t that I don’t love but that my love is too frequently immature and selfish. And yet, even though my love is damaged by sin, it is still love and God wants to heal my love. This means that even my “worldly wants,” he says, “have a speech of their own, broadcasting the gifts they have received from God.”
Once we recognize this, “it will not be hard to … love our neighbor.” As I come to understand that even the most selfish of my own desires is really a frustrated search for God and a step along the way towards Him, I can have compassion on others. After all, what is human weakness, what human sinfulness–mine or yours–but the disfigured love for God and His creatures?
Seeing this in myself allows me to see this in my neighbor and so selfish love is made “pure, and finds not burden in the command” to love others “in unfeigned love” (see, 1 Peter 1:22)
This love, Bernard says,
… is thankworthy, because it is spontaneous. It is pure because it is shown not in word nor tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3.18) It is just because it repays what it has received. Whoever loves like this, loves as he is loved, and no longer pursues his own desires but Christ’s, even as Jesus did not pursue not his own welfare, but ours — or rather pursued ourselves (#9).
As important as self-discipline and habit are in the spiritual life, we can’t forget that the fruit of inner stillness is freedom or what Bernard calls deeds of love that are spontaneous, pure, just, true because they are obedient to the will of God for the person we love.
Practically this means that when I love someone, I don’t simply have warm feelings about them. Sometimes the person I love will even cause me pain. But if I love you, I want what is best for you. And what is best for you is not what I want or even what you want. What is best for you is God and what He wants for you. Ultimately what God wants for each of us is to draw us ever closer to Himself. He wants to share His life with us and through us with the world.
Ultimately what God wants for each of us is to draw us ever closer to Himself. He wants to share His life with us and through us with the world.
This leads us to the highest degree of love: to love ourselves because we have first been loved by God. “How blessed is he who reaches the fourth degree of love, in which one loves oneself only for God’s sake!”
At this stage, love is like an experience of deep contemplation. We lose ourselves as if “we were emptied and lost and swallowed up in God.” This love isn’t mere “human love; it is heavenly.” This is the goal of inner stillness. And this is why we say the Jesus Prayer, to purify ourselves of every and anything that stands in the way of being emptied, lost and swallowed up by God.
In the theological tradition of the Church, this is what we mean when we talk about theosis or deification. To become “partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) means to love as God loves.
O chaste and holy love! O sweet and gracious affection! O pure and cleansed purpose, thoroughly washed and purged from any selfishness, and sweetened by contact with God’s will! To reach this state is to become godlike. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself, and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated red—hot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sun—beams, seems not so much to be lit as to be light itself; so for those who are holy all human affections melt away by some incredible mutation into the will of God (#10).
This last stage is never complete. This isn’t because of human sinfulness or the limitations of human nature (though both play a role). It is rather because the love of God knows no limits. God love is eternal and beyond anything we can imagine. At this stage, we come to realize that we don’t really hope “to possess” God’s love. Rather we hope “to be,” Bernard says, “possessed by it.”
Next: Let Us Begin!