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St Aelred of Rievaulx and friendship

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Last week I was working with another brother on a new liturgical book. Facing our two computer screens with keen concentration, we were taking delight in working together on a common project. 

When other brothers saw us, one commented that we looked like we were working at a call centre! But another was reminded of a comment by Antoine St-Exupéry about friendship: "Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction." I didn't know this saying, but I had read something similar in CS Lewis' The Four Loves: "we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead." Friendship, and indeed Christian fraternity, consists in looking the same way at a common object of interest and of love – whether it is chant notation on a computer screen, a beautiful landscape, or the very Beatific vision of God himself.

The fact that friendship rests on shared interests was well discussed by the saint celebrated today, Aelred of Rievaulx, the English Cistercian abbot of the twelfth century. His most famous work is perhaps his Spiritual Friendship, a treatise written at the end of his life. He frequently quotes the classic definition by Cicero (De Amicitia 6.20): "Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will (benevolentia) and charity (caritas)." Aelred develops this theme by classifying three kinds of friendship: the carnal, the worldly, and the spiritual. "The carnal is created by a conspiracy in vice, the worldly is enkindled by hope of gain, and the spiritual is cemented among the righteous by a likeness of lifestyles and interests" (1.38). At each level, friendship is nurtured by a common love, and as the object of love increases in worth (from base things to divine things) so the quality of friendship is raised. The highest kind of friendship is a selfless communion of hearts: "Now the spiritual, which we call true friendship, is desired . . . for its own natural worth and for the affections of the human heart, so that its fruit and reward is nothing but itself"(1.45).

Friendship is thus an excellent description of the Christian life. Ultimately we are called to become "friends of God". Abraham was a "friend of God" (James 2:23); Jesus called his disciples his friends (John 15:15); and in this vein Luke the Evangelist addressed his two books (Luke-Acts) to a Theophilus, 'Friend of God'. Aristotle observed that friendship is only possible between equals, and so Dominicans like Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart have drawn the conclusion that Jesus' friendship with us draws us, astonishingly, into a relationship of a certain equality with God. As God the Son humbly took on our lowly human nature, so he invites us into a relationship of glorious and divine love with him. This divine love is often labelled in Greek as agape (caritas in Latin), but St Thomas boldly employs the term for friendship, philia (amicitia in Latin).

St Aelred, however, is understandably reticent about equating divine love with 'friendship'. After all, Christians are called to love their enemies (with caritas), even when friendship (amicitia) with them is impossible (1.31-32) (St Thomas has an answer for this but that's for another time). But we should not assume caritas is a neutral and insipid kind of universal benevolence, nor that friendship is entirely bound up with the emotions of human attachment. For Aelred, 'good will' (benevolentia) is how he likes to characterise human loves, and 'charity' (caritas) is divine love and love of divinity. Aelred also agrees that equality is required for friendship: "among human beings—and this is a property of friend­ship—there exists neither superior nor inferior" (1.57). And friendship with God and men is perhaps not so different: "the friendship of man could be easily translated into a friendship for God himself because of the similarity existing between both" (3.87).

So how does charity relate to friendship? We read in the New Testament that "God is love", and while Aelred does not want to say simply "God is friendship", he is happy to replace caritas with amicitia in the next part of the verse: "he that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him" (1 Jn 4:16). It is hard to imagine anything more exalted!

St Aelred was not just a spiritual writer; in fact, he thought of himself more as a historian, in the tradition of the Venerable Bede. He was also a very practical administrator and diplomat. Having served in his youth as steward to King David I of Scotland, he became a major public figure, in matters of church and state, as the third abbot of the newly founded Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in North Yorkshire. At Aelred's death in 1167, the monastery counted about one hundred and forty monks and five hundred conversi and laymen. Nevertheless, it was not his practical governance but his wisdom and fidelity to the Christian vocation to love that mark him out as a great English saint. Perhaps the flourishing of Rievaulx was in part to do with how its abbot gave a Christian witness to spiritual friendship. To have written so truthfully about friendship, he must have been a good friend to others.

For further reading, I recommend Aelred Squire OP, Aelred of Rievaulx: A Study (1969). Fr Aelred mainly worked on the book over the fifteen years he spent at Blackfriars, Oxford. In his preface, he notes his gratitude to the brethren "who protected me from the importunities of the telephone and the doorbell"!

Fr Matthew Jarvis O.P.


Fr Matthew Jarvis is currently studying Patristics at the Catholic University of Lyon.


Clare Richards commented on 12-Jan-2016 10:58 PM
Thanks Br Matthew for this article. I didn't know St Aelred had spoken about friendship. I had read Timothy Radcliffe's writing about St Dominic speaking of friendship. Prayer as friendship with God, and therefore we need sharing human friendship in a shared longing for God. That has inspired me!

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