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Stages of Love in the Spiritual Life

April 14, 2011 by  
Filed under Charity, Dan Burke, Spiritual Development

There are three stages in our love for God: servile love, mercenary love and filial love. The word servile derives from “servant”. A servant (or employee) does his master’s will out of fear of punishment. Likewise, beginners in the spiritual life do God’s will, obey the Commandments, avoid sin, and go to Mass on Sunday, etc, because otherwise they fear and expect God’s anger and punishment. This is a necessary step in our growth, as it is in the maturing of a child who does the right thing and avoids the wrong thing because otherwise dad or mom (a good and responsible dad or mom) will discipline or punish them. God’s love is tough love, trying to move us beyond self to Himself and to love. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, Scripture says.

The second degree of love is mercenary love. A mercenary is a soldier who fights because he is paid, not because he is committed to the cause of defending home and country. Colonel Gadhafy hires sub-Saharan mercenaries to help him survive as the dictator of Libya. Our love for God is mercenary when it is focused on our gain, on what we hope to get from God, rather than on what we want to give God. Here is a great trap for many of us, and a trap we remain caught in for many years if not a whole lifetime. Even Jesus’ close friends, James and John, were hoping to have positions of honor when Jesus established His kingdom. We must constantly strive to purify our motives and our faith in order to put God and His will first. We must “lose our life in order to find it” as Jesus tells us.

We are all called to enter the third degree of love, filial love, the love of a son or daughter for their Father whom we love for His own sake. Why? Because God is total Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Being, everything our heart was made for! Human analogies may help: spouses and friends are able to love each other more than their own selves, and are ready to sacrifice everything for their beloved. This third degree of love is called by the Greek word, Agape, in the New Testament. It is divine love. Jesus lives it, and only His grace enables us to live it. It will help if we constantly practice love of God and neighbor and if we constantly ask for this grace to do everything we do out of pure love for God and neighbor. In our prayer, whether personal or liturgical, we need to concentrate on loving God for His own sake and avoid seeking for signs and “prayer experiences” and good feelings. We need naked trust in God’s pure, tender and merciful love for ourselves. Let us imitate the “Our Father” prayer which Jesus gives us as the model of all prayer. There Jesus teaches us to first seek to give glory and obedience to the Father before asking for any our own legitimate needs. This heals our soul.

The spiritual life is like a spiral. We have intermittent experiences of all three degrees of love but one tends to predominate. For instance, we can be in the third degree of love of God but have temptations or trials that cause us to do God’s will out of fear of punishment (first degree) or out of a desire to earn his love or help (second degree). Likewise, even at the beginning of our spiritual life, Our Lord gives us sweet consolations of purely loving Him and enjoying His goodness and glory; these graces spur us on to greater effort and love and give us strength to persevere and follow Jesus through the passions and crosses of life to the glorious resurrection of true Christian life.

Fr. R. Tomasek SJ
Courtesy of Zeal for Your House

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • faithful123

    About a year ago… I kept seeing these words ‘pop’ from the biblical page
    “any who wish to be my diciple, must pick up his cross and follow me”
    ?? I had to say to myself ‘what is MY cross?’ I know in this life there are
    annoyances to us, minor or big, I know we struggle to ‘become’, I know
    there is mourning of loss of loved ones, illness of loved ones or self,
    betrayals that we feel here and there, but specifically – in order to pick
    up MY cross I would have to know what that cross is.

    What I came to (rebuke me if wrong) my cross is my very human-ness.
    The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak as the adage goes.

    Took awhile but I came to 5 steps of carrying ‘the cross’ of my human-ness.

    FIVE STEPS of CARRYING THE CROSS .. to me… it sums up HIS LIFE quite well. I share here because of the last line of article: follow Jesus through the passions and crosses of life

    1. LIVE TRUTH of what we are — NOT what we’d like to be (He clearly said: I can do nothing except what the Father tells me) Our Lord was teaching, I am not God… I am human… in need of God and in need of OTHERS who are growing in God – thus our Lord formed HIS CHURCH… for all who wish to KNOW GOD in and through the power of the HOLY SPIRIT — the major player of CHURCH. (Holy Spirit is Love) seeing others growing in THE SPIRIT of GOD. ONE BODY of SAME SPIRITED others…growing in SPIRIT… A lifetime transforming ‘process’ – accepting our weakness with the truth of God’s strength as found in the Sacraments of church. Such is living a life of truth.

    2. RISING ABOVE ‘the earthly petty nit picky ways’ general humanity has in order to ‘puff themselves up’ at the expense of others… to THE SPIRIT OF LIFE that matters… HELPFUL, LISTENING, CHEERFUL when the world is down, and TRUSTING IN GOD’s CARE …when the world is running around fretting and fuming. [hard to ‘rise above’ the superficial ways of living…as ‘the world’ bombards us in all ways media and social interaction ‘to being that of a griper of life’s unfairness’ and ‘demand rights’ and mocks our ‘dreams’ of what we aim to accomplish.] Ignore such human ways of life listen to God.

    3. FORGIVENESS from the HEART… seeking to UNDERSTAND MORE THAN BE UNDERSTOOD. (toughest part of carrying the cross;because we humans love to be served rather than serve. ie: we love to ‘blame’ our failings on ‘that other one’ … or our lacks on ‘that group’ (prejudice comes in all colors) We like to ‘protect ourselves’ and be heard rather than hear the pain of the words of someone else and forgive them… they REALLY DON’T hear what they say or do because they are ‘self absorbed’ in ‘self’

    4. SUPPORT OF THE GOOD WAY… THIS WAS HIS LIFE.. HUMBLENESS AND MEEKNESS (but not weak / not a doormat) We know we are forgiven, and in that confessing of our sins as THE SPIRIT reveals it to us, and being forgiven… how could we ‘THROTTLE’ anyone who is not yet able to SEE THE NEW US… we were once blind ourselves… (recall the biblical verse of the man forgiven a great debt by his human master, but on the road saw someone who owed him ‘a mere fraction’ … he asked this one for payment… this other couldn’t pay and he showed not he same mercy as was shown to him) When we have been forgiven…and know it… and God ‘raised us up’ to a place of responsible work position… and others attempt to pull us back down; it is our ‘cross’ to humble ourselves and hear ‘their’ (pain? insecurity? jealousy? lacks? We are to help them to see ‘their good’ rather than defend our own.

    5. KEEP OUR EMOTIONS OF OUR HUMAN NESS… aligned to HIS SPIRIT GUIDANCE. We don’t ‘get mad’ as the world does. We don’t react to others who ‘bait’ us to get mad. Our emotions are a gift from God. Feelings are like the warning light on our car dashboard. We need to bring the feelings to the center of our being (the Christo-centric center) where He will guide us with what to do with them. If in a ‘bad situation’ do we stay
    and make where we are at better OR do we leave them to God and change
    the situation by moving from the situation. God does not expect us to suffer under ‘evil’ ways. If we will be pulled down by such ways … He’s perfectly
    ok with ‘shaking the dust’ and moving on. Our emotions are our
    warning light ‘something’ isn’t quite running as smoothly as we know it
    should. Don’t react ACT … WITH CHRIST.

    and this, I think is to GROW in love – by picking up my cross and
    following Him.

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