Invitation to the Devotional Classics – On Loving God

Reading works from the Middle Ages is a strange experience. Some of their theological blind-spots seem to us to be so obvious that only willful blindness can appear explain it, we might say. Alongside these errors, we often find ardent devotion to God, written with a fervency and vehemence that would seem forced and phoney in our world of theological precision and devotional frigidity. For these reasons, we might do well to read Bernard of Clairvaux.

After all, his errors are so transparent, there is very little chance that a modern reader is in danger of being persuaded. Bernard’s rallying cry to the Crusades, his beliefs in Mary as Mediatrix, and his call for the faithful to pray to her are errors which we would quickly spot, and just as quickly oppose.

But right alongside this are works which stir us deeply with their piety. Most of us have sung English translations of Bernard’s poems in the hymns Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving HeartsJesus the Very Thought of Thee, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded. And at the top of the list of devotional works would be his treatise On Loving God.

Bernard states, “You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love…We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable. When one asks, Why should I love God? he may mean, What is lovely in God? or What shall I gain by loving God? In either case, the same sufficient cause of love exists, namely, God Himself.”

The rest of this short work explains the theme, giving both how reasonable it is to love God (His glorious merits), and how profitable it is (the rewards, the joy, and the future hope). He describes what he sees as four degrees of love, and how we might attain it. For those who doubt that the idea of ordinate affection is found outside of the writers of this blog, read C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, Augustine, and then Bernard. You’ll notice they’re tackling the same question: what does it mean to love God? What kind of love is the love we give God? And they write not because they believe the question is unanswerable, but because they believe the question is difficult and worth tackling carefully.

We who live in the emotionally burnt-over land of sentimentalism and modern pop culture would find a tonic in writers like Bernard. Hearing a writer from the 12th century, with no knowledge of our worship wars, taking on the question of what it means to love God, is certainly worth our time. I commend to your reading On Loving God.

Editor’s note: this book is available through Religious Affections Ministries here.

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4 Responses to “Invitation to the Devotional Classics – On Loving God”

  1. Seth Says:

    Does Bernard say anything with which modern proponents of worship would disagree? When he talks of loving God deeply, wouldn’t all sides agree?

  2. David Says:

    I think everyone would agree with him in principle, that God is to be loved for himself. Bridging the principle to application is where the trouble comes. A man cannot see that his pop worship is actually narcissism, and therefore nothing like what Bernard (or Augustine, or Anselm, or Edwards, or Tozer or Lewis) meant by loving God. In their view, you discover God’s excellencies and then respond to them appropriately. Those appropriate responses obviously come through cultural means – a particular language, poetry or music. But what our culture lacks (or is fast losing) is a cultural vocabulary to express disinterested (not uninterested) admiration for excellence.
    Pop music pretends at this, while causing the participant to admire himself for his maudlin feelings.

  3. Macrina Walker Says:

    It’s strange: I would have thought that the problem with Bernard (if it is indeed a problem) is precisely that his errors (if one should call them errors) are not obvious (apart from the Crusades). But then I’m Orthodox and so hardly see devotion to the Mother of God as problematic (and it is worth noting that Bernard rejected the novel idea of the Immaculate Conception). But what is far more difficult to pin down is his role at the beginning of a shift (in him still rather subtle) in western Christianity that will see the division between theology and spirituality, dogma and experience. He has been called “the last of the Fathers” precisely because in him these things were still united. But the seeds of a later division are there and that is not at all obvious in his writings, at least not most of the time.

  4. Invitation to the Devotional Classics – On Loving God | The Christian Blogger Says:

    […] by David de Bruyn | 491 words Originally published at conservativechristianity.wordpress.com […]

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