For the first time that I can remember this past Christmas, I genuinely thought of the baby in the manger. I was one of the parents that never promoted Santa Claus. My mother did, and I remember how hurt I felt when I realized he was not real. (My mom was a warrior – she was a high school counselor whose students called Battle Axe. It was from her that I learned the art of non-violent spiritual warfare techniques.) But still, I gave Him the short shift every Christmas by not pondering why He came here for us.
On New Year’s Eve, I write resolutions and prayers for the coming year. But before I do, I tear open and read the sealed envelope from a year ago. Twenty twenty one’s resolutions were, well, … quite depressing. However, this year I had something brewing to write: podcasting.
Several years earlier with my son, I listened to the 2011 World Series live on the radio. It was spectacular to engage my visual imagination as I heard the crack of David Freese’s bat deliver a miracle for the St. Louis Cardinals.
I have had a surprising passing interest in podcasting for several years. I am a visual and not an aural learner. I borrowed Podcasting for Dummies from the local library and dug in. As well as Poetry for Dummies, this book gave me a clearly-written foundation to build on with further research.
Podcasting Made Simple mentioned that unlike blog posts and videos, podcasts could be listened to on the go. Also, podcasting could be recorded in solitude, which appeals to me.
The baby in the manger was born, was crucified, and rose again to give us life and our lives more abundantly. He and my purpose are now my abundantly. With the warfare over our nation and my first empty-nester Christmas, I truly thought about the baby in the manger. And I truly saw Him in a deeper than before raison d’être this Christmas.
A wise man will hear and grow in learning. A man of understanding will become able to understand a saying and a picture-story, the words of the wise and what they mean. Proverbs 1:5-6 NLV
When I was ready to take writing poetry seriously, I went to my default setting of books. By the time I was finished with one, it was liberally highlighted with either pencil or a yellow highlighter.
Poetry for Dummies was my first. It gave me a broad overview of everything poetry. Then I read any recommendation lists or reader reviews to find others to help me along the way.
In order to learn, we must also take those first baby steps with our pens, pencils, or keyboards. The same applies to our Christian lives — at some point beyond reading the Bible, we must step out in faith.
It is a fearsome thing to be dealt with by the heart of the Lord.
One recent weekend (I reserve weekends for guilt-free R&R), the Lord swung a punch to my psyche.
I profess no practical knowledge of the publishing industry. All I know is what I have read in books, online posts, and magazines. I do have experiential knowledge with blogging — my first weblog (an older, shortened term for web log) in the 90s was called My Hearthstone. My prodigal blog title returns home.
When I was writing my weblog – back before social media became popular – I was just proud that I was writing posts using HTML 3.2. I shared my views, one referring to Elton John song lyrics, another on Y2K. Technorati, a precursor to likes and follower counts, displayed popularity results for the world of weblogs.
Enter Twitter in 2006, the year I bought Twitter for Dummies and drove in.
Twitter, and a few others, paved the way for the interstate highway system of social media, bypassing American’s Main Street of weblogs. All the action entered the highway of social media, and our blogs became homing places. Our websites, our hearths, had been bypassed by social media companies that circumlocuted our blog posts with algorithms and AI. Wisdom congealed into building platforms first then writing books afterward.
A few weeks ago, the Lord, acting as a traffic cop, stopped me with the dastardly deed of AI and algorithms. In my human wisdom, I had gone looking for other writers to follow instead of working on my writing projects. I was looking for conversations, as limited as they are on social media, with other writers for some semblance of a give-and-take encouraging environment.
This behavior was outside the AI algorithms that Instagram had decided for me. I was locked out of my account immediately for suspicious activity and asked for a cell phone number to receive an SMS message containing a code to reenter. Which I don’t have.
Now mind you, I had 11 followers, mainly family and a few others who were interacting with me through my posts and comments. But they meant something to me. I had read and underlined a book about blogging on Instagram using captions. I shed a few tears.
He had been dealing with me for months to write first and demote social media platforms to a second-place priority. Telling me that my local isolation is a blessing in disguise so that I can concentrate on my writing. As Eudora Welty wrote in One Writer’s Beginnings, “My temperament and my instinct had told me alike that the author, who writes at his own emergency, remains and needs to remain at his private remove. I wished to be, not effaced, but invisible….”
Another lesson I believe the Lord wanted me to learn was to write steadily on a schedule and as Isak Dinesen said, “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”
But beyond the pain of losing what I was trying to build on a small level (for many followers would swamp me) was the pain of knowing I was not writing the way the Lord meant for me to write – a long Psalms 119 type poem and venturing to write longer, thoughtful blog posts. And I abandoned the joy of writing itself.
Writing is my God-ordained baptism. A dying to self in front of a blank page. I never would have thought the desire of my heart would be used this way.
I had a vision a few months ago: I was sitting down writing and had so much paper that it was floating all around me, no supply issues here. I know that meant my drought days of writer’s block would be over, but I can’t help but wonder if the vision did double duty and showed me how different the coming days would be regarding how we published our works. I don’t believe the paper in the vision meant an old-school return to book-only publishing, but I do think it might have signified a change.
On a national level, I see around the corner which we are turning now, as do many others, a total upheaval of our society. Social media and publishing companies are not exempt. Even though my Instagram account was taken out prematurely, I know it was a matter of time before censoring companies are taken down, regulated, or for all practical purposes boycotted.
I don’t want to see the Internet go down. I know that is primarily the only way my works are going to be read by those that God sends my way. And I know I am not alone in this. I want to see it cleansed.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing – variety is the spice of our literary lives. I chose Substack because of the melding of the social media aspect with the newsletter format (and because they don’t censor). My blog before h. renell’s Hearth was with WordPress because of the ability to have a community of followers. And my aforementioned Instagram account.
Many years ago I read Thomas Merton’s book Seven Storey Mountain. The Lord prompted me to revisit it. In the epilogue “Meditatio Pauperis In Solitudine.” Merton records the Lord’s message to him regarding his popular published poetry and his conflicting desire for solitude.
I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way you can not possibly understand, because I want it to be the quickest way…But you shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in my Mercy which has created you for this end…And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth.
Building a literary life with God, me, and the eyes that God sends my way has become the joyful practice of my weekdays, done in His way. Writers usually don’t see most of the hearts that they touch. For the work is ours and the reach and glory are His.
“Book Three” is the last book of Spiritual Friendship. Aelred and Gratian are conversing while waiting for Walter to arrive. Gratian admits that he needs Walter there to help him see other points that he can not. And so begins the last book, and my last post of this series.
Last Conversation Together
Aelred starts by saying what unites friends. He notes many character traits that can end a friendship. Some can be overcome, but others can not. For the ones that can’t be overcome, he gives practical ideas to take to dissolve the friendship, so it does not devolve into further destruction. For those that can be saved, he gives steps for correction. Finally, Aelred describes one famous biblical friendship that shows how to be friends when they are of different stations in life – Jonathan and David.
Reason and sweetness, the word that Aelred uses for affection, have to be united so the love between friends is pure. Or in modern vernacular, the head and heart have to be united for love to flourish in a friendship. Reason sometimes is needed to lovingly admonish a friend when needed.
Once a friendship starts, then it needs to be tested, acceptance is granted if the tests are passed, and finally, there is “perfect harmony in matters human and divine with charity and benevolence.” At the foundation of the friendship is God, who is according to Ephesians 2:14 (NKJV) “…is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation.”
Aelred mentions a few categories, grouped by being salvageable or not, of vices anathema to friendship ranging in severity. The ones that are not salvageable, he teaches, need to be slowly unwound, so as not to cause any more destruction. The brotherly love should always be preserved with the other party. Aelred notes some sins against friendships can be overcome, providing they are not dishonorable, violate a confidence, or destroy virtue.
If the offense is public, it warrants an immediate end. He defines public as
against one’s church leadership (this book’s setting is a monastery)
against one’s country
against one’s family or friends.
He talks about the friendship between David and Jonathan in one aspect: that they were of different social classes. David tended the sheep in his family and Jonathan was the son of a king. Inside the friendship itself, Aelred teaches that the friends are equal in the sight of God, and should within the friendship conduct themselves this way. Galatians 3:28 (ESV) states “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” One should humble themselves and allow the anointed one to rise when necessary as Jonathan did by recognizing David as king and not his father.
Spiritual Friendship is a timeless classic, short, and easy to understand. Buy or borrow a copy and read the points that I left out. Godly friendships will be needed in the days to come.
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.
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