Bernard of Clairvaux’s work, On Loving God, supports the notion that our ideas on prayer must be grounded in our doctrine of God. Bernard seizes on three “highest gifts” in On Loving God that not only distinguish us from the beasts (chap. 2) but perfect our love for God. These three – dignity, wisdom, and virtue (chap. 2, 15) –also support the notion of prayer being grounded in our doctrine of God.
These interlocked tools teach God’s character and doctrine. “It is plain that dignity without wisdom is useless and that wisdom without virtue is accursed, Bernard says, “But when one possesses virtue, then wisdom and dignity are not dangerous but blessed” (chap. 2). The following table explains the restoration of Imago Dei.
Dignity, which Bernard describes as human free will, is important as a gateway to prayer. Prayer is a free will offering (Lev 6:1-13), God allowing humanity communication with Him at will. This prayer begins based in carnality, rooted in fear. “Alas!” Bernard exclaims, “he must ever cry out lamentably, ‘O Lord, I am oppressed; . . . O wretched man that I am!” (chap. 10). Dignity brings perfection to prayer in moving it away from fear to faith through a growing understanding God’s character. “It is not imposed on rebels but freely given to those willingly obedient” (chap. 14).
Bernard describes wisdom as the recognition of dominion in the earth. This dominion assumes a responsibility in prayer. This level of prayer begins in self-interest rooted in greed. Wisdom elevates this prayer to intercession. “Once we experience Christ’s goodness, Bernard exhorts, “it will not be hard to fulfill the commandment touching love to our neighbors; for whosoever loves God aright loves all God’s creatures” (chap. 9). Wisdom helps us realize a responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves. Bernard counsels, “Real happiness will come, not in gratifying our desires or in gaining transient pleasures, but in accomplishing God’s will for us: even as we pray every day: ‘Your will be done in earth as it is in heaven” (chap. 10). Wisdom deepens our doctrine of God in understanding His love for every person.
Virtue, Bernard asserts, causes us to search for God Himself and His “sweet Presence,” calling out for Him. “To them that long for the presence of the living God, the thought of Him is sweetest itself” (4). This level of prayer is based in Him, His Presence, His character, His Person, and thus for Bernard constitutes true love. “Whoever praises God for His essential goodness, and not merely because of the benefits He has bestowed, does really love God for God’s sake” (9). Bernard describes this epiphany as “to love God on His own account, solely because He is God” (9). Virtue functions as a perfecting tool in drawing us further into that sweet Presence, enjoying Him for who He is, without petition, simply unceasing celebration of Him for His sake alone.
Another perfecting tool for Bernard deepening love is devotion (14). Prayer, a component of devotion, is a propellant in perfection in love. “It behooves us,” Bernard says, “if we would have Christ for a frequent guest, to fill our hearts with faithful meditations on the mercy He showed” (3). If our doctrine teaches that God is love, and that love is deepened through devotion, and if prayer is an essential component of devotion, then our ideas of prayer must spring from our doctrine of God. We pray from faith in His character, not from fear, resulting in slavery, nor for His blessing, resulting in greediness, bur for His Presence, resulting in true love.
OUTLINE OF ON LOVING GOD:
Chapter I: Everyone should love God for Himself.
Chapter II: Even the infidel should love God for His benefits, but believers also through wisdom, dignity, and virtue.
Chapter III: The Bride of Christ should love God because of His sweet Presence.
Chapter IV: Those who long for His sweet Presence love God. Those who trust in worldly wealth have a horrible end in store.
Chapter V: I myself should love God because He abundantly blesses, but more so I should give Him my self as He gave me Himself.
Chapter VI: We cannot love God enough.
Chapter VII: He Himself is the reward for love. While others run after that which cannot satisfy, those who love God are satisfied completely.
Chapter VIII: True love for ourselves and our neighbors springs forth when we love God.
Chapter IX: Coming to know God’s loving character through His many benefits causes us to love God for His person.
Chapter X: We will love God more perfectly only once we have crossed over into His Presence.
Chapter XI: In resurrection we shall love God most perfectly.
Chapter XII: We love God because He is Love.
Chapter XIII: True love is to love God not for fear nor for His blessings, but for His Person.
Chapter XIV: Through devotion, we love God in increasing perfection.
Chapter XV: We love God increasingly in advancing from motivations of carnality, then self-interest, to His Person, then His Presence in perfection.