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Saint Aelred of Rievaulx

January 12, 2017

12 January 2017

Today is the Feast of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred was born on Hexham, a beautiful town in Northumbria. I like Northumbria: it’s a very holy place, with a lot of Christian history up there. Aelred was a bright young man. As a boy he went and worked as a page for the Scottish Royal Family. Being a page was the way people were trained into taking on higher responsibility. The King in Scotland (Aelred’s best friend became the King) wanted to make him a bishop; he did not want to be a bishop. When he was 24 he became a monk at the new Cistercian monastery Rievaulx in Yorkshire. By the end of his life he was the Abbot of Rievaulx and there were 300 monks working there.

Aelred was a great writer – he has been called ‘The English Saint Bernard’. He died when he was only 57, of kidney disease, on this day, 870 years ago.

Why is Aelred famous? Because he was a great writer. And one of the greatest books he wrote was on the subject of friendship. He examined friendship and what it meant. He said there are three kinds of friendship. Friendship cannot be just Christian Charity. Of course there is Christian Charity, when we respect other people… but it does not mean we have to like them! We love people, we treat them appropriately through Christian Charity; but it does not mean that we have to like them. That is just sometimes too hard, the chemistry isn’t right. The result of treating everyone the same is that you end up not having any friends! That is terrible! That’s a terrible irony – that you could be in a Christian community and not have any friends. It reaches its sort of summit when the abbot of a monastery is not expected to always be with the same monks: they would change who they were sitting next to every day so that there was no suggestion of favouritism. Well, OK… but even so, people would still have friends. And Aelred said that he had people that he really got on well with, they were his friends, and that’s the way life is. Aelred took as his example Our Lord Jesus who had His friend, who was John – ‘the beloved disciple’. Jesus just ‘clicked’ with him; it just ‘gelled’. That is the way it goes.

We sometimes find that don’t we? I sometimes think it seems more difficult for men – perhaps that is just me being a man and feeling sorry for myself – but I always get the impression that ladies have their own close circle of special friends. Very rarely, very occasionally (I can count them on the fingers of one hand … on the two fingers of one hand!) when I have come across another man where I just perfectly match and we really get on as soon as we meet; kindred spirits. Sadly, one of them died pretty young; and the other guy? Well, we’re both busy, married men and we are not particularly friends, but whenever I meet him we have a great time. That’s the way it is. And I don’t know why it is, it is just that we ‘click’.

Aelred said there are three kinds of friendship. Be aware of each kind:

The first kind is carnal friendship. Lustful eyes looking at beautiful bodies is what he called it. Well, this is in all of us, isn’t it? We just can’t seem to help it. Somewhere along the line that is just the way things are. We just need to control ourselves; there are ways of controlling ourselves. Pope Saint John-Paul II used to say, ‘You can look but do not lust.’ God has made beautiful things, and there is nothing wrong with that. But don’t lust. Respect.

The second kind of friendship you come across is worldly friendship. I’m sure we have all come across this. Saint Aelred said that this is about what you can get out of the friendship: people want something from you, and they will be friendly with you, won’t they. Have we sometimes felt betrayed? Someone is really friendly, you have something they want, or you can influence something, and you help them. And then you never hear from them again, even when they have benefited from your efforts. Not even a thank you, once they have got what they want. That’s sad. Disappointing, isn’t it. We fell let down by that sort of thing.

And then that final kind of friendship – spiritual friendship. The joy of being a kindred spirit. It is not a jealous friendship, where you look at someone you are friends with and because they are also friendly with other people you resent it. That is just childish. It is just the joy, the delight of being with someone you like being with. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that this can get overlaid with our hang-ups in society, and people think there are all sorts of other things going on: that is just the evil world – there you are. But there is spiritual friendship. And as I say, there was spiritual friendship between John and Jesus. It is a gift of God’s Grace.

I will end with Aelred’s prayer on friendship:

Pour into our hearts, O God,

the Holy Spirit’s gift of love,

that we clasping each the other’s hand,

may share the joy of friendship, human and divine.

And with your servant Aelred,

draw many to your community of love.

Through Christ our Lord.




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