Homily for the Memoria of St Aelred
Dom Henry Wansbrough, OSB
(Ampleforth, United Kingdom)
Today is the Memoria of St Aelred, our neighbour at Rievaulx, 8 km away. We all of us, I guess, have a special affection for Aelred because of Rievaulx which we know so well. His greatest architectural achievement was the chapter-house at Rievaulx where one can imagine him delivering his much-loved homilies. So I want to say a few words about the work which is often considered his special written achievement, ‘On Spiritual Friendship’. At the very beginning of his work Aelred admits that he is heavily dependent on Cicero’s treatise on Friendship addressed to Hortensius, but Aelred’s work is specifically Christian. He begins, ‘Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst’, and one feels the presence of Christ throughout the book. There are fascinating differences from Cicero – or indeed from any ancient dialogue I have read – in that the interlocutor, the dialogue-partner, is not made to look a fool whom the leader is correcting, which is the norm in Plato’s dialogues of Socrates: Ivo, in the first dialogue, Walter (later his biographer) and Gratian in the second and third respectively, have their own good points to make. One feels that Christ is really present throughout, looking over Aelred’s shoulder. There is many a touch of warm and friendly humour (2.17 or 3.1), but especially a marvellous gentleness about the whole book, and appreciation not only of the Bible, of Cicero and Augustine, whom he has been reading from his youth, but of other opinions too.
He stresses constantly that true human love is an image of God’s eternal love. He even goes so far as to adapt St John’s ‘God is love’ to ‘God is friendship’. He is thinking for himself; so he adjusts Cicero’s statement that friends must agree on all matters, cutting out the ‘all’: it is important that friends should agree, but not necessarily on all matters.
There is no fear of friendship as there is in so much monastic writing a fear of ‘particular friendship’, and indeed one feels that for Aelred friendship is a vital part of monastic life. He says, ‘A man is to be compared to a beast if he has no one to rejoice with him in adversity, no one to whom to unburden his mind if any annoyance crosses his path or with whom to share some unusually sublime or illuminating inspiration’. He calls friendship ‘the medicine of life’ (as Sira 6.16 – and a string of quotations in 3.14), and considers that it would enhance many aspects of fraternal behaviour: ‘What, then, is more pleasant than to unite to oneself the spirit of another, and of two to form one, that no boasting is thereafter to be feared, no suspicion to be dreaded, no correction of one by the other to cause pain, no praise on the part of one to bring a charge of adulation from the other (2.12). Aelred thus sums up the spiritual advantages of friendship, ‘a man, being a friend of his fellow man, becomes the friend of God’. There are three kinds of kiss, the corporeal kiss by the impression of the lips, the spiritual kiss by the union of spirits, and kiss of Christ, when ‘the soul takes delight in the kiss of Christ alone and rests in his embrace’ (2.27).
I hope I may be forgiven for quoting so much from Aelred, even on his feastday, but the warmth and wisdom of his conversation on friendship increases one’s admiration for him and brings the reader closer to God.