[[Dear Sister, so often we love God for what he can give us. Is loving God for his own sake the highest form of love? St Bernard says this, right?]]
Thanks for the question. You are absolutely correct that according to St Bernard of Clairveaux and many others as well, love of God for God's own sake is a higher form of love than love of God for the sake of our own needs --- that is, for the sake of the gifts and blessings God gives us. However, according to St Bernard loving God for God's own sake is actually the third of four levels or stages of love, not the fourth. This will certainly seem to run counter to common sense but the highest form or "fourth level" of love according to Bernard is love of self for God's own sake! It is quite difficult though to love ourselves simply because we are loved by God, simply because we are empowered by God in this way. It is difficult and paradoxical because it is a form of self love in which we are wholly empowered by God and forgetful of self! Paul expressed the paradox in this way, "I, yet not I, but Christ in me."
The prerequisite for this is the third level of love, that's for sure. We will only be able to forget (and truly love!) ourselves in the way that is necessary if we can love God simply because it is what God is worthy of and moreover, if it is that which Love-in-act itself empowers. We have to become practiced and strong in this intimate form of love of God if we are ever able to love ourselves and others in the way God loves us! In other words we must love God in this way (the third level) before we can love ourselves and others in God (the fourth level of love)! The importance of this fourth stage and the way it follows the third cannot be overstated. Maybe it would be helpful to recall the first two stages of love, the two more immature forms before saying more about this.
First and Second Stages of Love:
The first form is one we all recognize. It is love of self for one's own sake. Sometimes called selfish love it is all about what one needs and desires. This is the earliest form of love we know, the love of infants and children who love others for the gifts they give, the blessings they bring. This form of love is often not really a form of self-love at all; the better word is narcissism. It can and ordinarily does grow into more authentic and mature love for the sake of the other just as children ordinarily come to love their parents despite not being able or desiring to get anything from them in return. The second form of love is love of God for the gifts and blessings which come from God. This is a higher form of love than the first because it includes a real love of God despite this being offered for the sake of the kindness, correction, empowerment, etc which God gives to us. We are loving God here but at the same time we are looking for God to help us in our sinfulness and immaturity, our lack of self-discipline and frailties of all sorts. There is a little forgetfulness of self involved here (we are no longer as narcissistic as we were as infants) though of course we can and ordinarily do grow in this form of love just as we do in the first one.
Third and Fourth Stages:
Even the subtlest forms of self-hatred are healed in this form of love. One takes care of oneself and one's legitimate needs but one does so precisely so that one may further spend oneself as God wills and empowers. This means one may certainly give one's life for others in the way Jesus did in his passion and death, but it also means spending oneself for others in ALL the ways God wills in a daily (continued) dying to self --- as Jesus and his true followers do every day of their lives. Take a look at how radically different the first stage of love is from this one! Both are ways of loving self, but the first stage is self-centered and protective; it is lived at the expense of others. The fourth stage is other-centered and kenotic; it is love of self lived for the sake of others whatever the God-willed cost to oneself --- just as Jesus' life was lived.
Fourth Stage Love as Corrective to Spiritual Individualism and False Mysticism:
I don't recall if St Bernard spoke of this specifically (though from the Cistercians I know, and the relatively little I know of the Cistercian Reform, it would not surprise me that it was a motivating insight of Bernard's own life and efforts at monastic reform) but seeing this as the necessary stage of love coming after love of God for God's own sake is an important corrective to forms of monastic practice and prayer which focus on despising the world outside the monastery or a mysticism which focuses on a "Me-and-God alone" relationship which is individualistic and exclusionary or exclusivist. Union with God means we love both ourselves, others, and the whole of creation with God's own love. Union with God empowers this kind of love and the selfless giving of self our world both needs and is made for. It allows God to love in and through us as exhaustively as God desires to do. It is not so much a spillover of our love of God, but a stage of love which love of God for God's own sake makes possible. It is precisely the way Christ loved, the love God calls us each to, and thus, the very apex of what having a covenant nature (as all human beings do) is all about.
Had the stages of love stopped at "loving God for God's own sake" we might never have been able to understand why Christ ever "came down from the mountain" or left any of those solitary prayer periods with God that so characterized his identity in order to spend himself for the sake of others; neither might we understand what moves the Triune God (a community of such love) to continually create and redeem as God constantly does. But being moved so is the very nature of union with God, the very character of God's Mediator and the Trinity itself. Union with God leads naturally to a divine love which goes out of itself to and for the other.
Had St Bernard not written so wonderfully and in a way which runs counter to common sense that loving God for God's own sake was "only" the third stage of love, we might be tempted to adopt forms of spirituality which are really thinly veiled forms of selfishness or not-so thinly veiled forms of self-hatred. We also might be tempted to denigrate representatives of active as opposed to contemplative forms of life (or eremitical vs coenobitical) for choosing a "lower" form of love. This has certainly been done in the past by even the very best theologians and I recognize it as a significant temptation today.
I should also note that the significance of the fourth stage of love fits very well into the new cosmic consciousness I have mentioned recently because it does not allow spirituality to ever be an individualistic or privatistic matter. (Need I say yet again that this is especially true for hermits?!) We must be ultimately concerned with God's own will, God's own projects and plans for reality; moreover, we must do so ONLY as God's own Life/Love in us make possible. Union with God empowers something our world needs from each and all of us so very badly, something we were each made for and are called to by God as we participate in moving the drama of an evolutionary and unfinished universe forward, namely "love of self (and others and all reality) for God's own sake"!
Similarly, when we have reached higher stages of love we do not cease to ask God to help us with our needs or to count on God's blessings and gifts, but this is no longer the defining form of love motivating our prayer or our approach to reality. And of course, as noted above, we do not consider love of self something "base" to be despised and outgrown or simply rejected. Instead, our love of self is healed and transfigured by God's own love; it becomes something we do for God's own sake and that makes all the difference! Thus, as we become more and more certain of, filled with, and moved by God's own Self (Love-in-Act) we become more and more secure, less needy, anxious, or fearful of loss and death, and more willing and even grateful for chances to generously spend ourselves for others. The paradox here includes the fact that in the third and fourth stages of love our own profoundest needs are also met but without the self-seeking found in the first two stages. ("Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.")