Welcome to my first of four or five post series on Spiritual Friendship, a book praising the wonders of Christian friendship. This post will give you a bit of theological, historical, and cultural background information of St. Aelred’s world.
Aelred was born around 1110 A.D. in Northumbria to Eilaf, priest of St. Andrew’s at Hexham. During his father’s married life, Pope Gregory VII ordered the priesthood to become monks or leave the church. His father chose to leave which created financial hardship. But it did not seem to affect Aelred, at least based on his educational opportunities and rise within the ruling Scottish government.
He likely was educated in a cathedral school and later became a steward in King David I of Scotland’s court. He held this position for nine years. During this time he read Cicero’s On Friendship, which had a profound influence on his book, Spiritual Friendship.
After nine years of court life, he visited the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, where he asked and received permission to join. Aelred’s life was spent mainly in Rievaulx, but he spent a few years starting a new monastery at Revesby. He died at Rievaulx of ill health in 1167.
Since he prospered in his duties in King David’s court, his time there gave him the skills he needed to lead Rievaulx: it grew to 140 monks and 500 laymen. His unhappiness with superficial life in court was the goad that God used, I believe, to drive him to spiritual life. When he wrote Spiritual Friendship, he wanted to go beyond On Friendship, adding a Christian foundation.
Aelred’s Monastic Life
The Cisterns had their theology – they took the Benedictine’s Rules more stringently by following the rules and doing no more. Their world view was one of hierarchy starting with God at the top: learning to love Him through experience and metaphor. The monks read both the Psalms and spiritual books. They balanced work and prayer, refused elaborate church art, and practiced poverty. They also settled uninhabited European land to build the world for God to overcome man’s lawlessness.
He also viewed himself as equal to women, as seen through the eyes of God. I can’t help but wonder if St. Francis of Assissi, an after-his-time contemporary, had read or heard of Aelred, because of his lifelong friendship with St. Clare.
Aelred’s Reading and Writing Life
Around the 3rd century, the practice of Lectio Divina began. Readers read to apply what is read to their own lives. It usually applies to religious works, but can also apply to secular ones. (Reading poetry using Lectio Divina is explained in Sage Cohen’s Writing the Life Poetic.)
Aelred was a prolific reader. One of the books he read was Augustine’s Confessions.
He was also a prolific writer, writing histories, guides, and sermons along with his books. One book, The Mirror of Charity, was requested by St. Bernard, a fellow well-known Cistern. The book became the foundation for Spiritual Friendship.
In Spiritual Friendship, Aelred writes in the dialog format, teaching us through his conversation with younger monks. He teaches us the value of friends through the mediator of Jesus Christ:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,Ephesians 2:14 NIV
Though this was written by a monk roughly 1,000 years ago, the principles still apply to anyone. Knowing a smattering of the background enhances the understanding of Spiritual Friendship. However, I think we can all to some degree relate to his solitude due to our lockdowns.
Godly friendships prepare us for our time in heaven, where our bodies are transfigured for eternity. Where there is no giving in marriage, just friendships for eternity.
Friendships here on earth allow us to bear each other’s sorrows and celebrate each other’s joys. Over the years, I have made big mistakes and lost friends, but I have also been blessed with a few that have been “closer than brothers” (Proverbs 17:17). One waits for me Up There.