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Aelred of Rievaulx: on spiritual friendship

30 November, 1999

Patricia Carroll OCSO draws our attention to Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian saint and spiritual writer who specialised in writing about friendship as an image of the relationship between God and each person.

Among spiritual writers, I think that Aelred of Rievaulx has been largely overlooked. Aelred was a twelfth century English Cistercian monk, who became abbot of the monastery of Rievaulx in the diocese of York in 1147, and remained spiritual father of that community until his death in 1163.

Steeped in Celtic traditions
He was brought up in Northumbria, which was steeped in the traditions of Celtic monasticism, and stories of holy men and women who kept alive the flame of faith brought by Aidan, the Irishman from Iona, in the seventh century. Aelred came from a family of married priests, his father and grandfather both ministered in Hexham, the last of a dying generation as Rome sought to impose its standard on the far western Celtic Christian tradition. Aelred spent his early years at the court of King David of Scotland and was made the king’s steward at the age of twenty two. He was clearly marked out for great things. However, during the course of a journey while on business for the king, he came across Rievaulx, and was drawn by the beauty of the place and the austere simplicity of the White Monks.

It became clear at an early stage of his monastic life that Aelred had a gift for directing others, a capacity which was marked by compassion and gentleness. Bernard of Clairvaux officially recognised this by asking him to write a spiritual directory for newcomers to Cistercian life, The Mirror of Charity, which reflects Aelred’s spiritual acumen. When he became abbot, the numbers at Rievaulx escalated to hundreds as he rarely turned young aspirants away. This later proved to be problematic for his successors who didn’t possess Aelred’s charismatic gifts. At his death there were three hundred, between choir monks and lay brothers, in the community.

Spiritual writer of depth
Besides being a sensitive pastor, he was also a spiritual writer of remarkable depth. In his later years, with a long period of involvement in the pastoral care of his monks behind him, he wrote what has come to be acknowledged as a spiritual classic, a short treatise entitled On Spiritual Friendship, which seems to have been mostly forgotten or is readily accessible in monastic circles only. It is time that this valuable Christian resource was made available to all the people of God, because in it Aelred provides us with an in-depth spirituality of Christian friendship.

What could an obscure twelfth century monk teach us twentieth century sophisticates about spiritual relationships? Aelred does have something to say to us who set such high value today on relating easily. He also speaks to those who spend hours exploring and probing the human need for intimacy, for deep human relationships based on self-disclosure and mutual acceptance, because he provides us with a Christo-centric view of these relationships. So what was originally written for monastics in the rwelfth century could be utilised today to help us come to a Christian understanding of how to relate to each other.

Aelred speaks about spiritual friendship – a relationship which helps us grow in love: love of each other and love of God. In fact, for him friendship is a sacrament of God’s love. In an earlier book he says that just as there is a continuous dialogue and interchange of love berween the three persons of the Trinity, so human beings – the rational creatures made in the image and likeness of this Trinity of Persons – are called to relationships based on mutual dialogue, exchange, sharing and self-giving. This is the theological foundation for all spiritual relationships. In fact, through the experience of spiritual friendship we come to experience something of God’s love. He refers to this friendship as a very holy sort of charity.

Spirituality of love
Aelred did not write in an historical vacuum. He was very much a person of his age, which was referred to as the Age of Friendship. It was also the period of history when troubadours toured the countryside singing love songs, and the courts were full of the culture of love. Those who entered the monasteries brought the language of courtly love with them, transposing and transforming it into a Christian spirituality of love. However Aelred’s book On Spiritual Friendship is unique because he skilfully synthesised his contemporary understanding of friendship with the ancient tradition of Cicero, the theological depth of Augustine, and his own psychological insight into human nature which was considerable.

His treatise On Spiritual Friendship is presented in the form of dialogues or imaginary conversations berween himself and three other monks. These are probably based on actual discussions or on the difficulties Aelred had encountered in his ministry as abbot. This literary format makes him easy to read.

The foundation of friendship
Aelred defines friendship as ‘agreement on all things sacred and profane, accompanied by good will and love,’ a definition he borrowed from Cicero. Ideally, friendship becomes a form of charity when it meets with a reciprocal response, so it is based on mutuality. In Christian friendship each one shares, each listens, each gives and receives; it is an adult relationship. In this treatise Aelred rarely refers to spiritual paternity, and usually such references are in relation to his official role as abbot. Instead he emphasises the equality of those involved in the relationship and the responsibility of each for its depth, and so he refers to a friend as ‘a guardian of love’ or ‘a guardian of the spirit itself’. He says that the reciprocal response we encounter in these relationships is a microcosmic image of what we shall discover eternally in God.

For Aelred, God is pure reciprocity, and in heaven we shall know what this is in all its fulness. In Christian friendship there are three persons involved, Aelred says to his young friend Ivo: ‘Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst.’ Authentic Christian friendship must ‘begin in Christ, continue in Christ and be perfected in Christ.’ He says friendship is also everlasting, an image of God’s eternal love, so according to him friendship which can end was never true friendship. Ivo asks Aelred if we could say of friendship what John, the intimate friend of Jesus, says of charity, that God is friendship? Aelred replies ‘this would be unusual, but what is true of charity, should be true of spiritual friendship since those who abide in friendship abide in God and God in them. ‘

The joys of friendship
In the second series of conversations Aelred speaks about the spiritual fruits of friendship and says that ‘those who have no friends are to be compared to beasts for they have no one with whom to rejoice, no one to whom they can unburden their hearts, or with whom to share their inspirations and illuminations.’ He calls a friend ‘another self to whom you can speak on equal terms, to whom you can confess your failings, to whom you can make known your progress [or lack of it!] without blushing, one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart.’

Perhaps there is a similarity here between the usual expectations we would have of a spiritual accompaniment relationship or in the Celtic tradition of the anam chara (literally, ‘soul friend’); or in a mature Christian marriage where the partner has become like another self.

Of course, prayer is an intrinsic part of this relationship. Aelred says that when we pray to Christ for a friend, it is easy, and almost inevitable, that our affection will pass from one to the other, ‘so that we might begin by an awareness of our friend in prayer before the Lord, and gradually understand that when we are with Christ we are also with our friend’. We carry our friend with us in the deepest part of our being where God is found. For Aelred ‘friendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge God, so that human beings from the experience of human friendship become friends of God.’

Criteria for discernment
Not all friendship is spiritual. There is such a thing as friendship based on agreement to do evil, e.g., when two thieves get together, or a murder is planned. Aelred acknowledges this reality and provides sound criteria for us to discern whether or not our friendship has a spiritual basis. In the initial stages of friendship he suggests we focus on four criteria:

– Purity of intention. So, we should be asking ourselves questions like: What kind of relationship do we intend to establish? What are our deeper motives?

– The direction of reason. Do we treat the other reasonably or do we just use him or her?

– The restraint of moderation. Are we too intrusive of this person’s otherness, or are we moderate about the demands we make on him or her?

– Valuing the friend’s love in itself. Do we value this relationship as gift, or are we seeking some reward other than the friendship itself?

For Aelred all the advantages of friendship are secondary by comparison with the value of the relationship itself. We should delight more in the friend’s love than in any benefits we gain as a result. Because friendship is a precious gift, we should be discerning about those whom we choose as friends, and not establish relationships based on either mere whim or animal attraction! This element of choice would seem to be a bit strange. It has been said that you cannot choose your friends, they are given as gift. This is true, but what Aelred is emphasising here is that once the gift of friendship is given, you must make a conscious choice to be committed to the relationship, and this element of choice means that the relationship will be free, that each exercises personal responsibility for the friendship.

According to Aelred in an authentic spiritual friendship the primary foundation of this spiritual love is the love of God, and this should be the main reference point for all that take place within the friendship. In this knowledge we should choose one who is fit to be the companion of your soul, to whom you can entrust yourself as to another self.’ Once this basis of trust is established there is no going back; we should be prepared to work at the relationship through good days and bad, through joys and sorrows.

Qualities of friendship
In his third series of conversations, Aelred describes the qualities which should be found in a spiritual friend, in ourselves or the other. These are loyalty, discretion, right-intention and patience. He says that ‘in friendship there is nothing more praiseworthy than loyalty, which seems to be its nurse and its guardian. It proves itself a true companion in all things, adverse and prosperous, joyful and sad, pleasant and bitter, beholding with the same eye the humble and the lofty, the poor and the rich, the strong and the weak, the healthy and the infirm. .. A truly loyal friend sees nothing in his/her friend but their heart.’ This ability to see beyond the superficial elements of someone’s personality towards deeper levels would be one of the distinguishing features of this spiritual relationship. Another important factor for Aelred is confidentiality. For him there is nothing more wounding to friendship than the betrayal of one’s secret counsels. Without this confidentiality we cannot take the risk of the self-disclosure and revelation which is so much a part of Aelred’s idea of friendship.

Finally Aelred admits that this spiritual friendship is something we will experience with only a few people, perhaps even only one, in this life. This would be reasonable enough as it would seem to make enormous demands on the persons involved, and there are relatively few who will be able or ready to allow us enter the inner sanctuary of their heart. In this sense, it is gift. But what we have experienced, by the grace of God, or can experience with a few people will in heaven be ‘outpoured on all and, by all, be outpoured upon God, and God shall be all in all.’ For since the Incarnation, all those who are living the Christ-life are no longer called servants but friends.

Authentic love makes demands
Aelred’s reflections and guidelines on spiritual friendship are more pertinent today than ever. At a time when human love in all its aspects has been trivialised and de-sacralised, when the pleasure principle is given priority and recreational sex is commonplace, he emphasises the demands that authentic love makes. Christian relationships are demanding and his criteria could be helpful for those responding to the call to Christian marriage, those engaged in relationships of spiritual accompaniment, those endeavouring to revitalise Christian community, as well as the monastics for whom Aelred wrote so beautifully. These are the kinds of relationships exemplified in the lives of saints such as Frances de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal, Clare and Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Incidentally, the gentle bishop of Geneva quotes Aelred in his own writings. Aelred’s treatise On Spiritual Friendship is a spiritual classic because it has something to say in every age. If we were looking for a patron saint of all those who endeavour to establish Christ-centred relationships, whether inside or outside of marriage, Aelred would surely be at the top of the list.

This article first appeared in Spirituality (September-October 1996), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.