Aelred of Rievaulx, in his book The Mirror of Charity, talks about a threefold understanding of love within the soul. He takes this from that famous line of Jesus:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In this passage, Jesus gives us two commandments: the first is to love God and the second, to love our neighbour as ourselves, is like it. If we carefully examine these commandments we can see that three things must be loved: God, our neighbour, and ourselves. Since God is love, if we wish to grow into the likeness of God then we must grow in love and if we wish to grow in love the way Jesus commanded then we must love ourselves, others, and God. Aelred described it as such,
“That a person may love himself, the love of God is formed in him; that one may love one’s neighbor, the capacity of one’s heart is enlarged. Then as this divine fire grows warmer little by little it wondrously absorbs the other loves into its fullness, like so many sparks. And so it leads all the soul’s love with it to that supreme and ineffable good where neither self nor neighbor is loved for self or neighbor, but only insofar as each fades away from self and is borne totally into God. Meanwhile, these three loves are engendered by one another, nourished by one another, and fanned into flame by one another. Then they are all brought to perfection together.”
Jesus said that the first commandment is like the second precisely because these three loves are really all one. To love ourselves is to love our neighbor, to love our neighbor is to love God, and to love God is to love ourselves. Though these three loves are distinct, a marvelous bond exists between them. This bond between them means that none can exist without the others. Each exists in all and all exists in each. Yet, while they exist in a circular relationship, they also exist in sequence. The first love which we should develop is a love of self. If we do not love ourselves then we cannot love our neighbour as ourselves. Aelred went on to say that,
“Somehow, then, love of neighbor precedes love of God. Likewise, love of self precedes love of neighbor. It precedes it, I say, in sequence, not in excellence. It precedes that perfect love about which was said: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Of course, a certain part of this love, even if not its fullness, necessarily precedes both love of self and of neighbor. Without it both of these are dead and, consequently, non-existent. It seems to me that love of God is, so to speak, the soul of the other loves. It lives of itself with perfect fullness, its presence communicates to others their vital being, its absence brings about their death.”
And so, there is a bit of paradox and mystery here. Even though the love of God is the metaphysical ground of everything, the love of self is where we should focus our attention in the beginning. To truly love God is to love what God loves and it is us which God loves most. Therefore, in the pursuit of the love of God we must begin with ourselves. When we truly love ourselves then we see ourselves as God does. Because we are the image of God we can only love God as much as we first love ourselves. If we do not love ourselves we are seeing a false image that is not of God. If we saw, with eyes truly opened, who we really are, then we would have no choice but to love ourselves. If we do not love ourselves then we do not have the truth.
Love, in general, has many different aspects to it. In a certain sense it is a way of life, a series of actions which nurture and support those whom we love. This is the love of the outer person. It is what compels us to things like non-violence. The things we do with our outer person are ways in which love of self, neighbour, and God manifest themselves in action. Love is something we do, most certainly, but it is also an inner disposition. Because all aspects of the outer person are the product of our inner condition, the outer actions of love have their roots in our inner disposition and thoughts. We must not only act in ways which express this love, but we must also nurture and foster these three loves in our hearts.
For the inner person, love of self is about renouncing vice and establishing virtue. It is about maintaining a healthy and balanced inner state which nurtures our soul and allows us to grow and bear spiritual fruits. To love ourselves is to create a climate of generosity and patience in our hearts so that we may live in peace and joy. The love of neighbour, for the inner person, is about forgiving our enemies, developing a feeling of compassion for others, and making an internal commitment to the bonds of friendship. The love of God, for the inner person, is about contemplation, faith, and reverence. If we love God in our hearts then we seek to know God, to trust God, and admire the wonder that is God’s creation.
All these things come together as one and depend on each other. Healing our inner condition so that we can live in a state of recollection helps us to develop compassion for others and what we do for the least of Christ’s children we do for him. And so, dear sisters and brothers, if you do not love yourself, then that is where this journey must begin. As you keep watch over your mind, do not let any thoughts of self loathing or shame take hold. As you renounce your vices, those spiritual possessions which so destroy the soul, store up for yourself the treasures of these three loves in their place. For to possess these riches is the greatest commandment which Jesus gave, and all the law and prophets hang on these three loves.
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