It is with good reason that scripture asks: Who will seek God's mercy and faithfulness for His own sake? What precisely does for his own sake mean? Surely it would have been enough to say Who will seek without adding for his own sake.
The answer is that many people seek to discover God's mercy and faithfulness from the sacred books, and yet, when their learning is done, they live for their own sakes and not for God’s. — St Augustine
“Love is the fountain of life, and the soul which does not drink from it cannot be called alive,” writes Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) He is considered the last of the Church Fathers. He is also a “road not taken,” in the unfolding branches of Christian spirituality. That is to say, few if any theologians trace their heritage through him or develop his thinking further though at the same time he is recognized as a writer of great spiritual insights. Maybe it is a matter that he writes as a monk who primarily observes the spiritual state of his brothers, making astute notes about the changes he saw in them.
One of his works are the Four Degrees of Love. They are summarized this way:
1. Selfish Love: Loving Yourself For Your Own Sake.
2. Dependence on God: Loving God for Your Own Sake.
3. Intimacy with God: Loving God for God’s Own Sake.
4. Being United with God’s Love: Loving Yourself for God’s Sake.
As with some schemes in spirituality — usually the good ones — the ends somehow meet. One places oneself on any such “scale” at the peril of one’s own soul. They are not made for that. They are supposed to be signposts into a future that seems to be headed somewhere but, maddeningly, seems to work in circles. They are supposed to be a guide for evaluating ones living as confession comes around again. “What do I love and why?” In all honesty one would usually answer: “I love me,” the “why” then is the uncomfortable next question.
What would it indeed mean to be able to say: “I love myself” and what would that look like? Most of us have no problem loving ourselves even if we do sometimes do it in sick ways. It would be merciful to some of us that the world would not do unto us as we would unto ourselves, so maybe it is good that we do not do unto others at all.
But really: “I love me.” Why? Have you any mirrors in your soul or even in your house? Nowhere is it more true that all of us love the sinner then in the mirror and I, certainly, am willing to forgive his sins with quick mercy. (6:36) Actually, we are more likely to justify why his sins are not sins at all. We indeed practice “do not judge” quickly and maybe over easily. (6:37)
What would it look like to actually love God? One of the problems in late medieval and reformation area spiritual direction was that the advice: “Just concentrate on loving God and see where that leads,” was somewhat problematic. As Luther points out. “Love God? I hated him,” Luther once wrote. What had God been for Luther after all other than an angry potentate who was looking at Luther as someone who had to prove himself to the courts of heaven, or else . . How indeed do you “love” that.
I note that none of Bernard’s phases include the neighbor. Maybe that is because the time that one can love ones neighbor aright only comes after one has traveled the road to figuring out things between God and oneself and above all one had gotten a glimpse of the idea what love looks like.
Maybe in a St Bernard kind of way we can extend: ”Do to others as you would have them do to you,” a bit. How about adding: “Do to others as God would have them do unto you.” Then maybe: “Do to others as you would have God do unto you.” And then maybe: “Do unto others as God would have you do unto you.” There are 27 permutations to this and many of them make no sense, just bear with these for now.
I pose these because I am of the conviction that one has to know the mercy of God before one can “do unto others” without causing harm. Like last week Jesus is looking ahead. His sermon really looks at a future where the mind of God is known and therefore mercy is defined; judgment is left to God and God’s judgement is known and revered.
That, it would seem, will take healing the soul from a stance of greed to a sense of generosity. (6:20-26) It would require that the blind — in the spiritual sense — gain sight because only then can they speak of the Kingdom of God to others. (6:39) It will actually take a total reformation of the soul, for good fruit can only emerge from good trees. (6:33-45) It will take a Pentecost and no less.
I have heard the sermon on the mount/ plain called an impossible guide that was only posed as an attempt to show us our sin. I believe Luther actually raised that possibility. I have come to think of it in more positive terms: It is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. Here on earth, it was lived in Acts and is lived, drudgingly since we remain in the flesh, to give the world that glimpse in the form of a human community that dares to live by the sermon’s ways. In that community, perhaps, yes, it might look as if Bernard’s circle has become a line and all are united with the Love of God.
So may it be among us.