Aelred of Hexham
Abbot of Rievaulx, 1110-1167
"It is no small consolation in this life to have someone you can unite with you in an intimate affection and the embrace of a holy love, someone in whom your spirit can rest, to whom you can pour out your soul, to whose pleasant exchanges, as to soothing songs, you can fly in sorrow, to those in whose friendship, amidst the many troubles of the world, you can safely retire. ..A man who can shed tears with you in your worries, be happy with you when things go well, search out with you the answers to your problems, whom with the ties of charity you can lead into the depths of your heart." ‘Spiritual Friendship’
Aelred has enjoyed something of a revival recently amongst Christian men looking for role models and guidance for deep, spiritual, male Christian friendship. (Which is not to say that his thoughts are not applicable to women or indeed any friendship).
“Aelred wrote that it is compatible with the highest degree of Christian perfection to take special pleasure in the company of particular friends. He point out that we are told that Jesus loved John, and Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus, and that this probably means that he found their company congenial.” From in defence of particular friendships.
A particular reason why I love him and am captivated by his charm:
“Finally when God created man, in order to commend more highly the good of society, he said ‘It is not good for man to be alone; let us make him a helper like unto himself.’ It was from no similar, nor even from the same material that Divine Might formed this helpmate, but as a cleaver, inspiration to charity and friendship he produced the woman from very substance of the man. How beautiful it is that the second human being was taken from the side of the first, so that nature might teach that human beings are equal and, as it were, collateral, and that there is in human affairs neither a superior nor an inferior, a characteristic of true friendship.” ‘Spiritual Friendship’.
His writings ‘The Mirror of Charity’ and ‘Spiritual Friendship’ are still read today. He wrote one of the first rules of life for anchoresses, for his sister, ‘Rule of Life for a Recluse’. This too contains much wisdom for the conduct of our ordinary lives.
These centuries were an extraordinary time for the Christian faith. A ‘golden age’ of monasticism and spirituality which influences us still today. He started writing at the request of Bernard of Clairvaux, (another great golden oldie) with whom he had a great spiritual affinity. Aelred was called ‘The Bernard of the North’.
A contemporary, Jocelin of Furness, gives the following account of Aelred in his Life of St Waldef:
“He was a man of fine old English stock. He left school early and was brought up from boyhood in the court of King David with Henry, the king’s son, and Waldef. In the course of time he became a monk, afterwards abbot of Rievaulx. His school learning was slight, but as a result of careful discipline in the exercise of his acute natural powers, he was cultured above many who had been thoroughly trained in secular learning. He drilled himself in the study of the Holy Scripture and left a lasting memorial behind him in writings distinguished by their lucid style, and wealth of edifying instruction, for he was wholly inspired by a spirit of wisdom and understanding.
Moreover, he was a man of the highest integrity, of great practical wisdom, witty and eloquent, a pleasant companion, generous and discreet. And, with all these qualities he exceeded all his fellow prelates of the Church in his patience and tenderness. He was full of sympathy for the infirmities, both physical and moral, of others.” From The Cistercians in Yorkshire.
His father was a priest, but Aelred was a 12th Century ‘yuppie’ in the court of King David of Scotland.
He describes this part of his life thus:
“a cloud of passion from the depths of my fleshly desires and youthful folly,…the poison of self-indulgence, impure desire, I slid down the precipice of vice and was engulfed in the whirlpool of debauchery. I was…utterly dissolute, I gave myself up to uncleanness.” Aelred, ‘Rule of Life for a Recluse’
After his conversion he joined the Cistercian Order, as a novice at Rievaulx Abbey. He was appointed Abbot of Revesby in 1143 Four years later he returned to Rievaulx as Abbot, where he stayed for the rest of his life.
Aelred’s vision for Rievaulx was "Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity, and a marvelous freedom from the tumult of the world"
“The abbey of Rievaulx was founded as the first Cistercian outpost in the North, and was to be a centre for White Monks to reform and colonise the North of England and Scotland. Its foundation was instigated by Bernard of Clairvaux and planned with military precision. The abbey attracted important influential benefactors such as Henry I and David of Scotland.
Rievaulx was intended to be as a mission centre from which the White Monks successfully spread across the country. By the thirteenth century Rievaulx had founded a family of no less than nineteen abbeys. Rievaulx was renowned for its sheep-farming and export of wool, but the abbey was also an active patron of culture.” From The Cistercians in Yorkshire.
The ruins of Rievaulx are well worth visiting. English Heritage.
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