Friday, June 24, 2016

St. Aelred of Rievaulx

I mentioned yesterday that I have been reading "Spiritual Friendship" by Wesley Hill. In his book he researches the history of friendship and spiritual friendship in the Church. One historical example he offers is  St. Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred developed a theology of friendship based on what he saw in scripture, what Jesus said and how the disciples behaved with each other and toward one another.
I did some internet searches on Aelred. He is an interesting man. According to The Dominican Friars of England and Scotland,

St. Aelred was born in Hexham in the North East of England in 1110. He came from a family whose members were noted for their learning, and had noble ties. Aelred was educated at the court of King David I of Scotland, and served as steward of the king’s table. During this time, he read Cicero’s On Friendship, which had a lasting influence. At the age of twenty four, he entered the Cistercian Abbey at Rievaulx, and was elected as its Abbot in 1147.

 Monastic life has at its heart a tension, between the eremitical dimension and community life. Each monk is in some sense a loner, a solitary. But nevertheless, he lives in community, in relation to others. This reality has important lessons for all of us. We are all unique individuals, but we must also relate to others. So often, modern 'spirituality' emphasises the individual and his or her lone quest for God. But the search for God is one which requires relations with others. Aelred's Spiritual Friendship is about this very thing - the role of friendship in the search for God.

 Aelred presents a dialogue between himself and other monks, whom he considers his friends. It starts as a dialogue between Aelred and Ivo, with a third, Christ, present with them. They aim to learn about friendship from a friend, and in the presence of Christ, who calls us friends. The dialogue shows a process of mutual discovery. The two friends identify that there are different levels of friendship. There are friendships based solely on sense pleasure, which is the lowest kind. There are also friendships based on temporal advantage and possessions. The highest level of friendship is based on Christ's New Commandment of love, a 'spiritual friendship' attained through conforming to Christ by wholesome interaction, without thought of gain. This kind of friendship is important because it is humanising, and raises the two friends to love of God through their love for each other.

The five vices Aelred thinks are most destructive are slander, reproach, pride, betrayal of confidence and detraction. Unless both parties are perfect, these vices will inevitably show themselves. However, they can be overcome if there is repentance and a purpose of amendment. Those who are quick to anger, the fickle, and those who are overly suspicious of others will struggle to find true friendship unless they are able to amend their ways. True friends treat each other with a Christ-like gentleness and sympathy. They are constant in their love, frank, and congenial. When the friendship has these characteristics, it can be said to be a true friendship, a 'spiritual friendship', one which builds up both parties and helps them journey towards God. 

There is much to be said for Aelred's approach to friendship. While he seems to be turning the process of creating a spiritual friendship into a Christian work to achieve salvation, he also sees the mutual benefits of such a friendship for all parties involved. I love the idea that Christ is always the third friend in the mix between two friends that are learning to love each other and growing spiritually through their journey together. It is very much in line with Jesus' words in the gospel of John,  
33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
This is only a small portion of John 13. In the chapter, Jesus washes the feet of His disciples. It is a bit heart wrenching to read that the Creator of the Universe is serving His creations in this way, but He does it none the less, and He tells these men that this is how they must serve each other. There is also contrast in this chapter in that Jesus makes direct reference to His betrayer. Friends and a not so friendly betrayer all enjoying the Passover meal together. Do you think Jesus washed the feet of His betrayer? I do. One has to wonder what was going through the mind of Judas as this happened and how it was that he could do what he did after that fantastic act of love. Judas' heart was never right. 

Whatever else you see here, please know this. Jesus changed the very nature of friendship, love, empathy and what it means to serve with this act. His was a new command. We are no longer to lord it over those differently blessed. We are to love them. Share our privilege with them. Become Jesus to them. We are to be spiritual friends of like mind, not as a Christian work to achieve salvation, but because we love as our Lord loves. 

This is our highest calling.  

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