St Bernard’s third step: we love God for himself

According to St Bernard the third step is about loving God for himself. He writes that as we approach God more often, so our intimacy with God grows. As we ‘come and see’ and remain with the experience that we are having in the relationship with God, so we begin to appreciate his presence. In other words, we start to love the experience of closeness with God in all of our ordinary everyday life, and this time with him becomes more important than what he has given us.

St Bernard continues that this state of mind leaves us free to follow the commandment to love our neighbour – for if we love God then we will love everything that belongs to God. Perhaps this means that what we are given generously we can begin to give to others.
The third step seems to be characterised by alternating between a love for God and a pull back towards self-interest. Etienne Gilsen writes that it, ‘is in this state that the soul remains for the longest time, nor indeed can she [our soul] ever wholly emerge from it in this life’. As St Bernard puts it, this intimacy with God becomes more attractive to us than the earlier phase and the dead end cul-de-sac of self-preoccupation.

Gerard Hughes writing after a particularly anxious time on his walk to Jerusalem puts it like this,
‘I looked at the candle in the darkness and recognised the darkness in all the bewilderment, numbness, frustration, helplessness and anxiety I had experienced…
The light came into the darkness and I felt the joy of it, an inner certainty in all my uncertainty, a hope when everything seemed hopeless, an assurance that all manner of things will be well and that Christ is greater than all my stupidity and sinfulness. I knew then that I was caught up in something far greater than my mind can ever grasp.’

Perhaps this letting it just happen can take us by surprise. I like Evelyn Underhill’s description, she writes,

‘The light comes, when it does come, rather suddenly and strangely I think. It is just like falling in love; a thing that never happens to those who are always trying to do it.
You may also take it for granted, of course, that so long as you want peace and illumination for your own sake you will not get them. Self-surrender an entire willingness to live in the dark, in pain, anything – this is the real secret. I think no one really finds the Great Companion till their love is of that kind that they long only to give and not to get.’

Part of being open and vulnerable is letting go of the illusory idea that we are in control. We are frightened of so many things and mostly to do with losing control. It may be connected to what other people are or do to us; what happens to us or to those we are close to; a fear of sickness, and for all of us inevitably a fear of pain and of death. If we can acknowledge our terror and reveal it to Jesus, this is the beginning of surrendering control to God, whom we can freely love for who he is and what he does for us and to us.