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.