Reading works from the Middle Ages is a strange experience. Some of their theological blind-spots seem to us to be so obvious that only willful blindness can appear explain it, we might say. Alongside these errors, we often find ardent devotion to God, written with a fervency and vehemence that would seem forced and phoney in our world of theological precision and devotional frigidity. For these reasons, we might do well to read Bernard of Clairvaux.
After all, his errors are so transparent, there is very little chance that a modern reader is in danger of being persuaded. Bernard’s rallying cry to the Crusades, his beliefs in Mary as Mediatrix, and his call for the faithful to pray to her are errors which we would quickly spot, and just as quickly oppose.
But right alongside this are works which stir us deeply with their piety. Most of us have sung English translations of Bernard’s poems in the hymns Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts, Jesus the Very Thought of Thee, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded. And at the top of the list of devotional works would be his treatise On Loving God.
Bernard states, “You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love…We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable. When one asks, Why should I love God? he may mean, What is lovely in God? or What shall I gain by loving God? In either case, the same sufficient cause of love exists, namely, God Himself.”
The rest of this short work explains the theme, giving both how reasonable it is to love God (His glorious merits), and how profitable it is (the rewards, the joy, and the future hope). He describes what he sees as four degrees of love, and how we might attain it. For those who doubt that the idea of ordinate affection is found outside of the writers of this blog, read C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, Augustine, and then Bernard. You’ll notice they’re tackling the same question: what does it mean to love God? What kind of love is the love we give God? And they write not because they believe the question is unanswerable, but because they believe the question is difficult and worth tackling carefully.
We who live in the emotionally burnt-over land of sentimentalism and modern pop culture would find a tonic in writers like Bernard. Hearing a writer from the 12th century, with no knowledge of our worship wars, taking on the question of what it means to love God, is certainly worth our time. I commend to your reading On Loving God.