Aelred of Rievaulx, Monastic and Theologian, 1167
We remember today, Aelred, the twelfth century abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in northern England, who died on this day in the year 1167. Aelred is most remembered for his writings on the gift of friendship, hence the marvelous collect that we once prayed on this day:
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 into your community of love….
The gift of friendship, both human and divine, which we celebrate today, is perhaps one of the most debased gifts of our time, for we can friend any number of people, many of whom we have never met in person, with the click of a computer key. At the same time, we can un – friend them just as easily. People also speak of friends with benefits, or hook – ups, by which they mean people who enjoy physical intimacy, without the problem of emotional intimacy or commitment. Aelred, I think would be appalled by it all.
For Aelred, friendship was a sacrament of God’s love. It is a way, not the only way, but a way in which you and I can taste here and now the mystery of God’s love for us. God has not friended us with the mere click of a computer key, and nor will God un-friend us with the click of the same key. At the same time, God does not regard us simply as a friend with benefits without the complexity of emotional intimacy or commitment.
What many regard as friendship today, is not what Aelred wrote about, when he described friendship as the medicine of life for friendship, Aelred says, heightens the joy of prosperity and mitigates the sorrows of adversity by dividing and sharing them. Hence the best medicine in life is friendship.
It is only in true friendship that we can know and be known in ways that heal our sorrows and multiply our joys. Such friendship takes hard work and a level of emotional commitment not found solely on a keyboard. While a computer may help to nurture such a friendship over time and long distances, it cannot replace the face – time that true friendship requires to survive and thrive.
In the same way, God longs for face – time with us, not the cursory click of a keyboard, or the fleeting acknowledgement that often passes for prayer, or a friend with benefits relationship that carries with it no degree of emotional honesty, intimacy, or commitment. To paraphrase John, and Aelred, for God so loved us that he gave his Son that we, clasping each the other’s hands, human and divine, might be friends with one another, and our joys heightened, and our sorrows mitigated.
Saint Aelred, whose feast we keep today, was born in 1109 in Northumbria, England, and became a Cistercian Monk in 1133.
In August of 1991 members of the North American Congregation of the SSJE made a three week visit to the U.K. to places significant in the life of our Society. After a week of retreat on Iona we made a short visit to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey before going on to Durham Cathedral. Traveling east through the outskirts of Edinburgh we proceeded westward across England following the course of Hadrian’s Wall. At a point where we could just see York Minster at a distance, shrouded with scaffolding, we turned north onto a smaller road through wooded hills heading for Rievaulx. When we descended into the valley we came to the ruins of the abbey, high walls and no roof. It was hard to imagine what the Abbey Church must have looked like with windows and a roof. Nevertheless, it was thrilling to see the beautiful valley where Aelred had lived and prayed. After our visit to Durham we went on to other significant places before returning to Oxford and then the USA.