Our spiritual community has a “study circle” once a month in lieu of our Encounter With Christ. Instead of focusing on the upcoming Sunday gospel and a case study, we study a book, papal encyclical, saint’s writings, or video. The article we were assigned to pray with was by Bill Gaultier at Soul Shepherding, “Four Degrees of Love (Bernard of Clairvaux).” While explaining the degrees of love (not to be confused with the four kinds of love in C.S. Lewis’ book “The Four Loves”.) I would like to share the insights that we had while hashing this out together as a team with things the Holy Spirit has been showing us in the last few months.
What stood out to us in the introduction of the article is how it related to our last study circle, which was the book “Surprised By Truth,” one of the collections of stories gathered by Patrick Madrid about the conversion of some of the most staunch Calvinists to Catholicism. As it turns out, St Bernard (1090-1153) was one of the favored saints of Calvin and Luther influencing their beliefs. We could pick up hints of what may have influenced predestination theology with insights shared such as “it is impossible to seek Him unless you are found of him.” Also fiercely self-disciplined, we could see how St Bernard could be admired by anyone and everyone.
The First Degree
The 1st Degree of Love: Loving Yourself For Your Own Sake (Selfish Love)
The first and great commandment is: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
But nature is so frail and weak that people are forced to love themselves first of all. However, this is carnal love… selfish… [This] love does not come as a precept, it comes naturally, for “no one ever yet hated their own flesh” (Ephesians 5:29). Yet it is natural for this love to grow excessively, and like a strong current, burst the banks of self-control, flooding the field of self-indulgence. A commandment, like a newly-built dike, is then needed: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39)…
Let us restrain our own self-love if we would avoid becoming transgressors. You can be as indulgent as you like about yourself, provided you shows the same indulgence with your neighbors.
Our insights on the first degree were mostly centered around the idea that in order to go beyond ourselves to love anyone or anything else, we must first experience being loved. For us to believe we are loved and receive love, we must encounter grace.
We had never heard the word “PREVENIENCE” before but it showed up in this article and caught our attention. One person on our team mentioned having heard the word at mass earlier in the week during the homily. It means “entry of God or the grace of God prior to repentance or conversion.” I was frustrated at myself for not having posted this article earlier before Christmas, but wouldn’t you know, this word was again featured in some of the Advent prayers of the mass and my heart swelled when it was recited, kinda like Elf when they announce that Santa will be coming to Gimble’s the next day, “I KNOW HIM! I KNOW HIM!” (Yes, I am a word nerd.)
In the past few months, we have been experiencing the Holy Spirit’s wisdom on the lack of self-control we have as humans. We want to be like the disciplined St Bernard (minus living in mud perhaps) but holiness isn’t just about self-denial and discipline. We can’t do all things in ourselves, but we can do all things through Christ as we are reminded in Phil 4:13.
God goes before us in all things, especially repentance, so we have the grace to understand that we are chaining ourselves to sin and that is where self-discipline is necessary. God is so loving, merciful and good that He even precedes us in conversion. He wants us to be free from these unnecessary bindings. That is how gentle our Heavenly Father is to His children.
It also occurred to me that when we go on our Spiritual Exercises (spiritual retreat based on St Ignatius of Loyola’s practices of meditation in silence with the Lord) we begin at this very place in the first meditation of the weekend; that we were created by Love itself to be LOVED. It’s a great place to start in a world that seems to begin it’s thinking on the polar end of this idea with something likened to “I live for myself and don’t need anyone or anything.” Certainly the spirit of the world and not one of God.
Next Week: The Second Degree of Love