Monday, January 12, 2009


One of the truly heartwarming revelations emerging out of my son's recent and ongoing illness was and is the sheer number of friends who have touched his life and he, theirs, and who have rallied to his support.  Quite fitting to be thinking about this today, the feast of St. Aelred of Rievaulx.  Aelred had, early on, become fascinated with Cicero's ancient dialogue On Friendship, and went on to write his own treatise on spiritual friendship.

Aelred (c. 1110-1167 A.D.) was a twelfth century abbot of the Trappist monastery of Rievaulx in England.  He was born "Ethelred", an Anglo-Saxon, in Northumbria, along the Anglo-Scottish border.  His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all married priests.  Aelred had two brothers and a sister; one brother and his sister later became monastics as he did.

At age 15, in 1125, Aelred was sent to live and be educated at the court of the King of Scots, David I.  He became close friends with the king's two stepsons, Simon and Waldef, and was appointed steward of the royal table.  Cicero's On Friendship, mentioned above, seems to have influenced Aelred the rest of his life.  He became the intimate friend of a member of the court by his own account. There is indication that he himself may have been a gay man.  At any rate, in time, Aelred became greatly dissatisfied and restless about life at the court, almost, he says, to the point of despair.  

While on a mission to York in 1134, Aelred rode over to the new Cistercian monastery, only two years old, at Rievaulx. He was so deeply impressed that, after discussion with his friends, he entered the monastery the very next day.

Around 1142 he was sent to Rome, and on the way back Aelred stopped at the monastery of Clairvaux where he met the noted abbot and preacher, Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard, himself no slouch when it came to understanding love, both human and divine, was quite taken with Aelred's spiritual depth and literary promise.  

Back at Rievaulx, Aelred was made novice master in 1142 and began writing books at Bernard's behest.  A year later he was sent to found a new abbey at Revesby.  Four years later, in 1147, at 37 years of age, Aelred was called back to become the abbot of Rievaulx, a position which he held for for the next twenty years.

Aelred continued writing, and during this time he wrote Spiritual Friendship, among other works: a magnificent book of only some 81 pages which reflects the depth of his understanding and lived experience of friendship among people.
Aelred was kept busy not only with writing, but with visitations to several daughter houses, trips to General Chapter at Citeaux, not to mention his day-to-day administration of the monastery of Rievaulx.  It had grown from 300 monks when he became abbot to over 600 monks and lay brothers.  

The last ten years of Aelred's life were marked by ill-health, chiefly from kidney stones.  Having personally had such episodes twice within the past 17 years, I can tell you that Aelred was no stranger to pain!  Though I've never had a baby, I'm guessing that the pain levels of both giving birth and kidney stones have a lot in common.  Because of his afflictions, Aelred lived and ate in a small infirmary cell, but graciously welcomed his monks to always come, sometime 20 to 30 at a time, to be with one another and to converse about the life of the spirit.

Aelred died on January 12, 1167 at the age of 57, surrounded by his monks, with these last words as his legacy: "Festinate, for crist love. [Hasten, for Christ love.]"   His biographer, Master Walter Daniel, who recorded these words says that Aelred spoke the Lord's name in English because he found it "easier to utter, and in some ways sweeter to hear" in the language of his birth.

The treatise on Spiritual Friendship had been written initially for an enquiring monk, Ivo of Wardon, who wanted to know about spiritual friendship, and not just from such secular sources like Cicero's treatise.  Ivo felt that the latter lacked "the salt of heavenly books and the flavoring of that most sweet name..."  

A few quotations from Aelred's book will give you a taste of how he understood friendship:

"...Friendship bears fruit in this life and in the next." (SF, 2.9)

"For what more sublime can be said of friendship, what more true, what more profitable, than that it ought to, and is proved to, begin in Christ, continue in Christ, and be perfected in Christ?" (SF, 1.10)

"And, a thing even more excellent than all these considerations, friendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God, so that man from being a friend of his fellowman becomes the friend of God." (SF, 1.14)

This is, I believe, a perfect illustration of what St. Thomas Aquinas meant when he commented: "Grace build upon nature."  In his Gospel account (2:25), John the Evangelist assures us that Jesus "knew all people...he himself could tell what was in people."  And so Jesus could say to his chosen twelve followers:  " one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.  You are my friends if you do what I earnestly admonish you to do.  I do not call you servants...but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father...and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last..." (John 15:12-16)

The Gospels are full of Jesus' references to "friends":  John the Baptizer referred to himself as the "friend of the Bridegroom"; Jesus, says Mark, "called to him[self] those whom he wanted, and they came to him.  And he appointed twelve, whom he named apostles ["ones sent"], to be with him..."; Jesus' critics called him "a friend of tax collectors and sinners"; and Jesus refers to "our friend", Lazarus, as he journies to dramatically restore him to life.

Jesus, however, was also realistic.  He knew that friendships don't always last and aren't always sustained by both parties.  After the unusual message Jesus preached about "the living bread that came down from heaven [referring to himself], Scripture says: "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him."  Jesus responded as such a caring friend himself that he even gave the Twelve the opportunity to opt out.  Their response: " whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."  Luke recounts in his Gospel a story about a person who, looking to his own convenience and comfort, didn't want to be bothered helping his friend in a time of need.  Jesus uses the parable to contrast this with God's always-reliable friendship, and to demonstrate the need for persistence in prayers. Finally, Jesus modelled how a friendship-gone-bad needs to be handled.  Judas, one of the most trusted of the Twelve, the keeper of the purse, goes to the chief priests and says: "What will you give me if I betray him to you?" Though Jesus is very direct and forthright with Judas, both before and after the betrayal, never once does he disavow his friendship; he doesn't bad-mouth Judas, or attack him in any way, or demean him.  He says simply: "Friend, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man? what you are here to do."  Jesus lived and exemplified the message which he'd undoubtedly often preached to friends and followers: denying oneself, taking up the cross, and losing one's life: even for a disloyal friend such as Judas.

Aelred again:  "And so in [true] friendship are joined honor and charm, truth and joy, sweetness and good-will, affection and action.  And all these take their beginning from Christ, advance through Christ, and are perfected in Christ.  Therefore, not too steep or unnatural does the ascent appear from Christ, as the inspiration of love by which we love our friend, to Christ giving himself to us as our Friend for us to love...And thus, friend cleaving to friend in the spirit of Christ, is made with Christ but one heart and one soul..." (SF, 2.20-21)

"Thus ascending from that holy love with which he embraces a friend to that with which he embraces Christ, he will joyfully partake in abundance of the spiritual fruit of friendship, awaiting the fullness of all things in the life to come...and God shall be all in all." (SF, 3.134)


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