Christian Devotional Classics: Spiritual Friendship

Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, frontispiece of an 1845 edition of Lives of the English Saints by John Henry Newman. — “Aelred of Rievaulx, Saint “. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 18 Aug. 2013. <>

Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 1167) on Spiritual Friendship

St. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) was a twelfth-century Cistercian abbot and well-known spiritual writer, whose treatise “Spiritual Friendship,” is widely considered a classic of Christian spirituality. Inspired by Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero’s philosophical dialogue, “On Friendship,” Aelred approaches his subject from a decidedly religious standpoint, examining both the theoretical and practical aspects of friendship in the light of faith in Christ. Christian friendship, he maintains, is all about extending the fellowship of Christ to another. The more two persons grow as friends, the more they should sense the gentle, unobtrusive, yet abiding presence of the quiet third partner in their lives. He affirms this belief when talking to his friend Ivo at the outset of Book One, stating, “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst.” — Introduction. Spiritual Friendship: The Classic Text with a Spiritual Commentary by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Inc, 2008).

Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 1167)

Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 1167) grew up in the High Middle Ages (1000 – 1300) during the century referred to by some as “the Age of Cistercans”. As you may remember, Thomas Merton was a member of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order and an extension of the earlier order. AND as you may remember from his picture, their habit is unique in being white in color. In 1098, the movement of self-supporting enclosed monastic communities was started in Cîteaux (Latin name: Cistercium) by a group of Benedictine monks with a passion to strictly follow The Rule of St. Benedict. The passionate and organizing leadership of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) enabled the order to advance across much of Eastern and Western Europe, including the British Isles. Their “humanist” perspective birthed an emphasis on manual labor and the development of technology.

Saint Alered of Rievalux as a Cistercian abbot with noble birth and gifts not only in writing, but also politics, exemplified why the Cistercians left their mark on Europe in the midst of

  • the Crusades, which began in 1095 to address the expansion of Muslim forces in areas held by Christendom.
    • Note: This partnership between Eastern and Western Christendom occurred despite the East-West Schism (1054), which largely came down to a power play between leaders of Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, i.e., whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from both “the Father and the Son” or just “the Father”, may very well have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
  • the founding of Medieval universities (e.g., Bologna and Paris) — stimulated by they the opportunity to interact with Eastern Christendom and Muslim culture/learning (some of which was the bringing back of Greek learning to Europe) through the Crusades, which also provided a place for the growth of both
    • scholasticism: drawing heavily from Aristotle and as such not open to Christian mysticism.
      • Note: Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109) passed away just before Aelred, Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) was a contemporary, and Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) came afterward.
    • Christian humanism: an emphasis on the justice among those created in “the image of God.”
  • overall surge of the arts, literature, and sciences, hence the reference to the time as the “High” Middle Ages
  • the power struggles between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor.
    • Note: Concordat of Worms signed by Henry V and Pope Calixtus II in 1122.
  • growth of towns and city-states.

Living in Scotland and being of noble birth, Aelred was directly impacted by Norman advancement. The Normans took England in 1066, with Ireland, Scotland, and Wales following in the 12th Century. Although connected with the influential King David I of Scotland (1084 – 1153, who assumed the throne under the support of Henry VII in 1124), Aelred chose the monastic life. During his reign King David stimulated feudalism and the growth of monasticism.

Rievaulx, North Yorkshire, Eng. Flaxton “Rievaulx”. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 24 Aug. 2013.

In 1134 at the age of 24, Aelred left the court and entered the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx, Yorkshire. He quickly rose to become the first abbot at a daughter house (1143) and then the Abbot of Rievaulx (1147). He not only oversaw a significant on-site facility and staff, but also supervised daughter houses. Furthermore, politics did not escape him as he continued not only to support King David and Henry VII (even writing histories to the defense of their kingship), but interact with larger ecclesiastical concerns such as a papal schism. His influential writings included Speculum caritatis (The Mirror of Charity, written at the request of Bernard of Clairvaux), De spiritali amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship), and seven works of history.

In my on-line reading, I came a number of articles and pages attributing homosexuality to Aelred, even declaring him a patron saint. I did not have time to research this much. But I would comment that he appears to hold an orthodox/”traditional” Christian perspective. My initial thought is that it is difficult for those in monastic orders to talk about love and friendship without their writing being misinterpreted. This appears to be a subject for future research. If you are aware of helpful resources in the this area, please comment below or email me.

What does Spiritual Friendship (1164-67) have to say to us today?

St. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 1167). Spiritual Friendship (1164-67). Copy used in preparation of post: Spiritual Friendship: The Classic Text with a Spiritual Commentary by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Inc, 2008).

Daily Reflections for the course of a week from which you pick up this post. Drawn from drafts I posted on the Emerging Scholars Network Facebook Wall as part of a course on Christian Devotional Classics at Evangelical Seminary. Please email me know if you use the second section to stimulate campus discussion (e.g., brown bag lunch discussion group). I am particularly interested in suggestions on revisions for use in that context.

1. For Deeper Reflection on the introductory material: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst” (30). As I shared with regard to The Way of a Pilgrim And the Pilgrim Continues His Way, I appreciate the dialogue of a shared journey which acknowledges Christ’s guiding and redemptive presence. May our time today with the people of God be marked with several significant spiritual friendships. Furthermore, may our conversations be filled with charity and humility, enriching one-another as brothers and sisters in Christ, i.e., not tearing one-another down.

2. “Lord, I sometimes wander away from you. But this is not because I am deliberately turning my back on you. It is because of the inconstancy of my mind. I weaken in my intention to give my whole soul to you. I fall back into thinking of myself as my own master. But when I wander from you, my life becomes a burden, and within me I find nothing but darkness and wretchedness, fear and anxiety. So I come back to you, and confess that I have sinned against you. And I know you will forgive me.” — Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167).

“Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst.”

3. “Monastic theology had five major characteristics . . . experiential . . . symbolic . . . traditionalist . . . epistemological . . . limitations on the use of reason and secular learning. . . . The physical rigorism that led the Cistercians to settle Europe’s interior wastelands reflected an inner conviction that the whole universe need to be reclaimed for God, especially the wild and unruly nature of man. Putting down roots in these harsh, forboding places pointed to an interior journey where the savage and unruly passions of the soul had to be confronted and tamed. Aelred’s reflection on his own personal experience was a primary source for his spiritual teaching. . . . Love, in his mind, was both the way of God and the way to God. . . . Friendship he believed, was a way in which this love could be experienced on earth. Impressed as he was by the learning in a secular work such as Cicero’s ‘On Friendship,’ he was well aware of its inherent weaknesses and set out to write his own treatise on friendship precisely because he believed that the Christian faith could transform human friendship and raise it to new heights.” — Introduction. Spiritual Friendship, 5 – 7.

For Deeper Reflection: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst” (30). When reading Spiritual Friendship, I led/participated in a prayer gathering interwoven with a dialogue of a shared journey of spiritual friends. During that time I had to remind myself of the call for our conversations to be filled with charity and humility — that there is an interior wasteland not only in others (and other fellowships), but also within me (and my own fellowship!).

How can we immerse ourselves in the labors of the Kingdom of God when we are not part of monastic community? How can we let what has been given seed and watered on Sunday morning [and discussions such as the one I wrote about on What Exhausts You (ESN Blog. 6/17/2013)] truly come to sprout, even flourish in the wastelands where those with even less to offer than Cicero are much preferred to Aelred AND no limits on reason/secular learning can be imposed?

Love . . . friendship . . . acknowledging inherent weaknesses of secular learning (to ourselves and others) . . . embrace Christ and be embraced by Christ in order to enter transforming human friendship raising us to new heights by addressing the interior wasteland . . . looking to the new heaven and new earth. Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

Praying for discernment with regard to what that looks like for you today and this week as part of the people of God on your campus, in your discipline . . .

4. “Aelred’s theory of love as expressed in ‘The Mirror of Charity’ [1142-43] provides an important backdrop for understanding his theory of spiritual friendship. His approach focuses on the threefold experience of what he terms attraction, intention, and fruition. . . . For Aelred, only the power of Christ’s redeeming grace can heal the weakened powers of the soul and enable a person to love in a way commensurate to the dignity of his nature. This grace transforms our intellectual pride into humility and heals our defective wills so that we can love.

With regard to friendship, grace enables us to see ourselves as we truly are, and befriend someone in a way that our attraction to inclination towards, and enjoyment of him or her are upright and well ordered. ‘Spiritual Friendship’ demonstrates how the love of friends, healed by grace, mirrors the love of God. The work contains both theoretical material about the nature of Christian friendship, as well as practical suggestions about how to deal with difficulties that invariable arise among friends.” — Introduction. Spiritual Friendship, 8-9.

For Deeper Reflection: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst” (30). During the classroom conversation of Spiritual Friendship I was once again humbled by the interior wasteland contained within and spilling outward from me before submitting to the Lordship of Jesus the Christ. I was not only unable to love and to be a true friend, but in my “path to being heard” I had no intention to fall for such distractions.

In other reading/discussion, we explored the writing of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). I found excerpts from both his “Sermon 74 on the Song of Songs” and “On Loving God” beautifully related to the conversation. First, my deepest human friend is my wife Theresa. I couldn’t imagine ever marrying (let alone having children!), if it hadn’t been for Christ’s transformation of my head, heart, and hands. Second, the four degrees of love profoundly describe the internal wrestling, possibly mirroring the process of sanctification (?), I have encountered: when one loves oneself for one’s own sake, when one loves God for one’s own good, when one loves God for God’s sake, and when one loves oneself for the sake of God. How would my friends, my God respond with regard to where I am “at” today? Am I finding my rest in God alone? Turning to prayer before writing a part two for What Exhausts You? (Note: Part II is Do you desire rest?).

5. The writing of Spiritual Friendship. “Since however I had already read many things on friendship in the writings of the saints, desiring this spiritual friendship but not being able to attain it, I decided to write my own book on spiritual friendship and to draw up for myself rules for a chaste and holy love.

Now, then, we have divided the work into three books: in the first, we study the nature of friendship, its source or cause; in the second we propose its fruition and excellence; in the third we explain, to the best of our ability, how and among whom it can be preserved unbroken even to the end.” — Spiritual Friendship, 25.

For Deeper Reflection: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst” (30). In the Prologue, Aelred of Rievaulx shares a number of items including his interactions with Cicero’s writing on friendship, “abandoning all worldly hopes” by entering the monastery, new found joy in reading holy books, and the tasting of “the honey of the most sweet name of Jesus” along with “the salt of scripture.” But he circles back to offer his desire to write “on spiritual friendship and to draw up for myself rules for a chaste and holy love” (25). I particularly appreciate Aelred’s dialogical mentoring/teaching style which enables him in the presence of God (in “friendship” with God?) to probe the nature of friendship in conversation with one friend and then delve further with two others later in life.

Do you have mentors/teachers who teach more by discussion? One who may begin the consideration of material by stating something along the lines of, “I am not going to teach you anything about these matters but rather to discuss them with you. For you yourself have opened the way for both of us, and have enkindled that brilliant light on the very threshold of our inquiry, which will not allow us to wander along unknown paths, but will lead us along the sure path to the certain goal of our proposed quest” (33)?

Do you have “spiritual friends” to engage in conversation this summer, through the academic year? If not, I encourage you to strive to find such this summer. How do you define “friend,” “friendship,” and “spiritual friendship”? What do you consider unique attributes of spiritual friendship, versus carnal (affection) or worldly (temporal advantage) friendships? Are you comfortable with Ivo’s statement, “I am convinced that true friendship cannot exist among those who live without Christ” (34)? Are there other forms of friendship, in particular those which believers extend to (or respond to when offered by) those outside of the kingdom? If so, how do you understand/define these forms of friendships?

6. “[Spiritual friendship] is a mutual conformity in matters human and divine united with benevolence and charity. . . . Have you forgotten that Scripture says: ‘He that is a friend loves at all times’? Our Jerome also, as you recall, says: ‘Friendship which can end was never true friendship.’ That friendship cannot even endure without charity has been more than adequately established. Since then in friendship eternity blossoms, truth shines forth, and charity grows sweet, consider whether you ought to separate the name of wisdom from these three.” — Spiritual Friendship, 41, 47.

For Deeper Reflection: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst” (30). I must confess that these words are too profound for me to truly comment upon. I pray for God’s rich blessing upon your friendships. If you are in transition in some manner and seeking to become part of a new academic community and/or find mentoring relationships, please let us know at

7. “‘A friend,’ says the Wise Man, ‘is the medicine of life.’”Spiritual Friendship, 60.

For Deeper Reflection: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst” (30). Aelred drew the quote on friendship, as much of the inspiration for the book, from Marcus Tulius Cicero’s “On Friendship.” But it is significant to underscore that Aelred points to love, the very “love of God” (84) as the “fountain and source” (67) of friendship. To further elaborate on the specifics of friendship, he offers four elements — love, affection, security, and happiness (96) — and four qualities to be tested — loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience (100). Do you have such friends and are you growing in relationship with them? If not, are you seeking such friends with discernment? Any guesses why I find spiritual friendship with such an important aspect of the journey in higher education?

Note: When seeking spiritual friendship Aelred cautions his dialogue partners, i.e., Gratian and Walter, to beware of spiritual friendship with those evidencing slander, reproach, pride, disclosing secrets, and secret detraction (78, 89).

8. “‘Defer to your friend as an equal,’ says Ambrose, ‘and be not ashamed to anticipate a friend in a service. For friendship knows no pride. Indeed, a faithful friend is the medicine of life, the charm of immortality.’” – Spiritual Friendship, 113.

For Deeper Reflection: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst” (30). Among the various friendships he describes, Aelred gives significant attention to David and Jonathan (Book Three: 92-97). I offer that such friendships are difficult not only in the context of governance, but also in the ‘academic chain of being.’ The Emerging Scholars Network desires/seeks mentoring and peer relationship which cross boundaries, i.e., provide a glimpse of the “Upside Down” nature of the Kingdom of the God.  Aelred concludes Spiritual Friendship by exploring a number of important aspects of friendship:

  1. loving self/neighbors properly
  2. choosing friends by reason, character, virtue
  3. testing the loyalty, honor, and patience of one’s friend
  4. likeness of expression
  5. bearing one-another’s burdens
  6. praying for one-another
  7. embracing with the holy love of Christ
  8. dispelling of all anxiety/fear due to the “Supreme Goodness” outpoured out by God.

“[F]riendship is founded on love. Indeed who is there that can love another, if he does not love himself since, from a comparison with that love by which he is dear to himself, a man ought to regulate his love for his neighbor. A man does not love himself who exacts of himself or commands from himself anything shameful or dishonorable” (127). May our lives and friendships evidence the love of God, offering the medicine of life to others. To God be the glory!

Update: Introduction to Daily Reflections (8/25/2013, 5:30 pm).

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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