Reading a little Aelred of Rievaulx

Tomorrow is his commemoration. Here’s what I wrote last year. Aelred (1132-167) was an English Cistercian Abbot during the golden age of the Cistercian order. He is noted for his writings on friendship and love, but today  I reread part of his pastoral prayer. He prays to Jesus Christ on behalf of the monks under his care:

My understanding and speaking, my leisure, my activity my doing and thinking, my good and ill fortune, life and death, health and sickness–let absolutely all that I am, experience, feel and understand be employed and expended for them, for whom you yourself did not scorn to expend your very life. And so I pray you teach your servant, Lord, teach me by your Holy Spirit how I may spend my substance for them. Grant, Lord, by your grace, that I may bear patiently with their frailty, sympathize kindly and support with tact. Let your Spirit teach me to console the sad, strengthen the faint-hearted, raise the fallen; to be weak with the weak, indignant with the scandalized and to become all things to all men, that I may win them all.

His prayer is a powerful reminder to all of us with the cure of souls, of the importance of praying on behalf of those in our care. He prays for their material needs, but also for their spiritual needs:

pour your Holy Spirit into their hearts that he may keep them in unity of spirit and the bond of peace, chaste in body and humble of mind. May he himself be with them when they pray and inspire the prayers it pleases you to grant. May the same Spirit abide in those who meditate, so that, enlightened by him, they come to know you and fix in their memory the God whom they invoke in their distress and look to in time of doubt. May that kind comforter be swift to succour those who struggle with temptation and sustain them in the trials and tribulations of this life.

These quotations are from The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century (Penguin Classics), translated and edited by Pauline Matarasso.

Aelred of Rievaulx

Today, January 12, is the commemoration of Aelred of Rievaulx in the liturgical calendar. Aelred was abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, England and part of that twelfth-century flowering of Cistercian spirituality. Bernard of Clairvaux overshadows all of the other Cistercian authors of the period and indeed many of their writings seem derivative or pale imitations of his. But one might think of it another way. Bernard was the genius of course, but others like Aelred were so imbued with the same spiritual perspective that when they wrote about it their experience and about the spiritual, they were bound to use language and imagery that echoes Bernard.

In fact Bernard urged Aelred to write his most popular work (at least in his own day), The Mirror of Charity.

I read the following from another of his works Spiritual Friendship this morning:

How right and proper it then becomes to grieve for one another, to toil for one another, to bear each other’s burdens, when each finds his pleasure in neglecting himself in favour of his friend, in preferring the other’s will to his own, in putting his friend’s needs first, in setting himself in the way of whatever threatens. How delightful it is meanwhile to talk together, to confide one’s aspirations, to try and ponder and weigh, and arrive at the same conclusions! And on top of all this, reciprocal prayer, which gains in efficacy with the depth of the affection that inspires it, accompanied by the tears precipitated by anxiety, released by emotion or called forth by grief. And while one is entreating Christ in one’s friend’s favour and seeking to be heard, one is stretching out towards Cjhrist himself in love and longing, and comes the moment when suddenly one’s affection passes from one object to another without one’s being aware; and as though one were experiencing at close quarters the sweetness of Christ in person, one begins to taste for oneself the delights of his presence. So it is that we ascend from that love, already holy, with which we embrace our friend, to the love with which we embrace Christ, thus savouring joyfully and freely the fruit of spiritual friendship; whose plenitude we look for in the future, when the mutual anxieties that beset us will have been wiped out, and the difficulties that we now must bear for one another’s sake have been dispelled, when death’s sting is no more and death itself destroyed–that sting whose wearisome pricks compel us so frequently to weep for one another–when security at last is ours. Then shall we enjoy that sovereign good for all eternity, then will the friendship to which here we can admit but few be poured out upon all, and thence back into God who shall be all in all.

While there is a great deal of Bernard in this text–I think especially of the use of very physical imagery like “taste” and “embrace” to describe spiritual experience, this passage at least is also highly evocative of Augustine. He may be describing his own experience of spiritual friendship, but I also could read this as a commentary on Confessions Book IX in which Augustine describes his relationship with his mother, and especially their shared experience at Ostia and her subsequent death.