The second of the steps of love that St Bernard explains to us is linked to ‘God’s gifts’ what we are given by God. Bernard believed that as we experience God’s gifts or God’s action, especially in times of trouble, and experience some relief from our trouble or some consolation, so we grow in gratitude and grace. If we frequently turn to God when we are in difficulty, and feel that we are released from the difficulty through God’s grace, then we begin to love God for what he gives us and has done for us.
How can we understand psychologically what this might mean? One thought is that through God’s grace and action in us we are given strength enough to be sustained through whatever is happening to us. Abbe de Tourville wrote over a century ago about how we realise to what a degree, ‘our Lord always gets us out of our difficulties, in spite of our anxieties, weaknesses, and failings, then we begin to acquire assurance and serenity even in the midst of our troubles’. If we can trust God to be with us, and to help us, then the difficulty feels less overwhelming and even perhaps more meaningful.
One embarrassing thing that we might discover quite early on in thinking about ‘loving God for what he gives us’ is that we sometimes treat God as we do others – perhaps this is what step two of St Bernard’s ladder of love is really about. We are treating God as if he exists to serve and respond to our needs and this of course links back to step one of love. Thomas Merton was given the sudden spiritual insight, ‘I had fallen asleep in my sweet security. I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favours’.
This awareness of the depths of our neediness – another gift from God – demands that we understand ourselves, and our motivation in turning to God. Inevitably within that understanding, we start to learn about humility and about knowing ourselves as we really are. Eventually in this knowing St Bernard says that we will move from centre stage to relocate God as the centre of our lives.
This reorientation is more about appreciating the ‘vertical dimension’. When we are self-preoccupied and limited to the first step of love, our horizons are seriously restricted. The edges of our world are defined by our needs, our projections, and our perceptions. As we become increasingly conscious the space around us opens up and we have new answers to old questions that go beyond the horizontal limits with which we had previously structured our life.
‘What are you looking for?
This question links to the first stage of love and can act as a way of opening up our emotional relationship with God.
The answer may be that we don’t know but are looking for something instead of nothing. Perhaps we are still looking for something that will fulfil us – our vocation, our close relationships, perhaps at a deeper level we are looking for a more real part of ourselves. Perhaps we are looking for something that is hidden deep in our spiritual unconscious. Perhaps we are looking for something that is already within us … something that is always very close to each one of us, ‘nearer than breathing, closer than hands and feet’.
What does it really mean to be in such a relationship with God? One answer is to be in a state of conscious connection with him. This involves a giving out and a taking in. It is as essential and natural as breathing. One of the basic techniques in meditation is to watch and count the breath as a way of focusing our attention, but how do we consciously connect with God and how can we begin to be aware of God in our lives?
Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth century French monk, describes a similar process to watching the breath, when he suggests almost that we can watch God. He found a way, and advocated it to others, of fixing ourselves firmly in the presence of God by conversing all the time with him without mystery or artificiality. This, he teaches, initially needs perseverance, but all that is needed is our realisation that God is intimately present within us, and so we can turn at every moment to him in ‘unbroken communion’.
The question invites us to be open to all possibilities. In other words, we are in a place of becoming, for going beyond ourselves, and so we carry the potential for change and moving closer to God. The way that we reflect on our answer to this question, ‘What are you looking for?’ will be influenced by our particular attraction towards the intellectual, the emotional, and the moral. It is at this point that the grace of God helps us in our search. In this way as we move forward on the four steps of love God acts as a transformational process who through continuous action within us alters our very being – mind, heart and soul.
‘Each of us is at the centre of infinite and marvellous combinations’
So writes Leon Bloy who says that if God gave it to us to see the infinite and marvellous combinations – in other words the patterns and paths God makes in our lives, ‘we would enter Paradise in a swoon of pain and delight’.
The first step of love: ‘We love ourselves for ourselves’
When St Bernard writes about this first step he sees it as inevitable that we put our physical needs and natural desires first. We need to physically survive, and so we do all we can to ensure that. Love is part of our natural make up and to begin with it is self-orientated, so we look after ourselves. St Bernard understood that as part of this first step of love we can extend this same love towards others. He warns against keeping things for ourselves, and urges us to share with our neighbour. If we begin to share the things we need for our physical well- being with others then this opens us to God. This may be particularly true if in our efforts to give to others we start to appreciate our own loss – that we then have less or even not enough – and so we turn to God for help.
In our present times and culture because most of us have physical shelter, warmth, and food, we might say that the first step of love is when we are in a frame of mind where we only aware of ourselves, or that we are self-preoccupied. We haven’t really got the time or the capacity to give to others nor the emotional space to think properly about them. Clearly loving ourselves is a good thing – indeed in the commandment Jesus reminds us ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39), but in contemporary terms the first step of love may be more about a distorted form of self- love that does not really involve anyone else at all. Everything is filtered through the narrow lens of what it does for us, for our personal or professional development, and everyone we meet is assessed in terms of what they can do for us. Alternatively the form that our self-love takes can be one of negativity and hatred – no less preoccupying. We are taken up with our own misery – the ‘poor me’ frame of mind, and can find meaning in hurting and hating ourselves and through that others. One time we love our self, another time we hate our self but the focus of our energy is firmly focused on us.
It’s certainly a stage we all directly experience – perhaps especially when we are adolescent and that we often retreat to as adults – usually when we are feeling under attack or stressed – and it happens even when we feel we are sorted! We all can feel narcissistically vulnerable and wounded – our sense of who we are is threatened, and so we react and protect ourselves. And of course there are many reasons to get stuck at this first step. Some of the reasons will belong in the past, and yet still cast a long shadow affecting our present and future.
The Muslim mystic Rumi likens the self-preoccupied state of mind to a prison
Why when God’s world is so big,
did you fall asleep in a prison
of all places?
Here we are in Lent
Lent is traditionally a time for stripping away and letting go and also it is a time for perseverance.
When Thomas Merton writes about perseverance in faith he says that it is not about hanging on to some course which we have set our minds on, and are refusing to let go of. It’s not even about getting a bulldog grip on faith and endlessly sticking with it through thick and thin; rather, Merton writes, he is beginning to think that God loves those who as Merton puts it:
‘are so beat and have so much nothing when they come to die that it is almost as if they have persevered in nothing but had gradually lost everything, piece by piece, until there was nothing left but God. Hence perseverance is not hanging on but letting go.’
Lent is then a time of exposure and weighing up where we are and who we are before God. In an earlier book The Four Steps of Love I wrote about the four steps that St Bernard of Clairvaux described in the twelfth century. The four steps are:
We love ourselves for ourselves
We love God for what he gives us
We love God for himself
We love ourselves for God’s sake
They were written as part of a spiritual journey of deepening awareness; what he describes as a ladder taking us closer to God – a way of thinking about our love and our relationship with God. He is suggesting that being alert and having a growing awareness of these frames of mind way is the reason and task for us in this life.
St Bernard teaches about the idea of continuous conversion – conversion as an ever on going and deepening process. If, we can hold to the idea given to us by Abbe de Tourville that ‘God’s action towards us is a masterpiece of partiality and love’, then, we can begin to grasp the immensity of the changes that can happen to us in a life of faith. We are gradually drawn ever closer to God, and the realisation of the centre of a different sort of reality than that which we thought we knew. And in the process of persevering with this other things that at times seemed so important are sloughed off and left.
Over the next weeks of Lent I’m going to refer to these states of mind – or emotional stages and link them to questions that we are asked about our relationship with God.
Perhaps Jung’s writing in 1949 on the state of the post-war world can also be seen as prophetic. So much of what he says could apply to 2017; or perhaps it’s more that there are cycles of political movements and pendulums that swing through from one position to another.
Jung saw that a political situation is always a manifestation of a parallel psychological problem in millions of individuals. Whilst political commentators and analysts might agree with that, they would not necessarily appreciate that the problem is largely unconscious and it is this that in Jung’s view, makes it a particularly dangerous one. He sees it as a conflict between a conscious (ethical, religious, philosophical, social, political, and psychological) standpoint and an unconscious one which is characterised by the same aspects but as Jung puts it, is represented in a ‘lower’ or more archaic form.
Talking about Western societies Jung sees that this is a conflict present in nearly everyone: instead of Christian ethics [though one might question that phrase given increased awareness of what has passed for Christian ethics] this is about the law of the herd … by which he means populism and suppression of individual responsibility with submission to totalitarian ethics in the form of a tribal chief. A superstitious belief in an ad hoc doctrine dominates over religion, and instead of philosophy there is what he calls ‘a low-grade doctrinary system which “rationalises” the appetites of the herd.’ He sees the disruption of a differentiated social organisation by a chaotic and meaningless agglomeration of uprooted individuals … here I think Jung means a rootless sense of community – what is it that we belong to – and he sees people as kept in line blindfolded by lies. This is a political system he says which inhibits the development of consciousness and intelligence.
He calls what happened in Germany before WW 2, amongst other things, a mental catastrophe and one that leads him to realize that no society is immune because the destructive powers are right there in each person. The more unconscious they are, the more danger there is. In this sense there is a threat from within as well as from without, and so political talk about destroying enemies and so on is futile. For Jung the only response is one where the unconscious is slowly integrated without violence and without flouting ethical values. In terms of economic competition wealth only grows at the expense of another’s poverty, so the success of growth for one country is, as we can all clearly see, at the cost of another country’s misfortune.
Jung’s message was not heard in 1949 … it’s doubtful how many in power would or could hear it now either.