On Spiritual Friendship

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

– John 15:15

We are deep into hay harvest right now.  A quarter of an inch of rain fell over night.  It’s 3:30 a.m. and the sky is clear.  The moon is well into its last, dying quarter-phase.  And I have been thinking, that if Christ calls us friends, ought we not also to call one another friends and treat one another as friends?  …and what is the nature of friendship?

aelredIt’s been said that if St. Bernard had not been such a 12th century presence that Aelred would be a gentle giant of his age and much better known today.  One of three sons born to the last married Roman Catholic priest in England, deeply reflective, perhaps homosexual in orientation, he was eventually called to be abbot of the thriving Cistercian foundation at Rievaulx, a position which he held for twenty years.  Deeply sensitive to the nature and nurture of relationships – a must for any community to psychologically thrive – he re-contextualized Cicero’s De Amicitia (On Friendship) on a deeper plane, clarifying and simplifying in the process.

His work begins with its Prologue, and speaks for itself…

  1. Throughout the time when I was a boy at school nothing compelled me more than the charm of my companions.  Running heedlessly toward affection, being foolhardy to love, endangered my soul. But nevertheless nothing was sweeter, nothing created more pleasure, and nothing was more valuable to me than this love.
  2. Loves and friendships in and of themselves are conflictual.  Unaware of the nature of true friendship I became torn between allegiances, and was often deceived by the semblance of friendship.  At long last a copy of Cicero’s On Friendship came my way, whereupon my mind immediately seized upon it due to both the manner in which he orders his thoughts as well as his winning eloquence.
  3. At the time I did not think myself worthy of such friendship.  Nevertheless, this model allowed me to evaluate the nature of the friendships in which I was engaged, and to thereby gauge the manner in which I imposed my own ego in my search for love and affection.  Wandering, fallen, leprous, God took me in and cared for me, and healed me to the point whereby the false allure of profane life was exposed, and I turned and made my home among those who find their worth in a religious community that draws its sustenance from Christ alone.
  4. It is not easy to start to read or understand the meaning of sacred Scripture when your eyes are blurred by the half-tide ways that people normally see the world.  Even when I wanted to understand, Scripture’s literal meaning remained opaque to me.  But in the process of my mind becoming open to them, I found that the secular views of life were of no consequence in compare.  Even Cicero’s worthy treatment of friendship grew stale in my mouth.
  5. Without Christ, without sacred Scripture, everything paled.  But my mind was drawn again and again to Cicero’s arguments.  And finally I began to see a connection between the essence of true friendship and the truth of Scripture.
  6. Historically the early church writers also wrote on friendship.  And so, not being very adept at at loving in this way, but desiring to be so, I decided to chart out a guide for myself that is both untarnished and set apart for this goal alone.
  7. This treatise is divided into three short parts. The first part explains the nature of friendship…its origins. The second part details the point at which it becomes fully realized. And the third part speaks to how friendship can remain unbroken, and among whom this is possible.
  8. I am certainly not worthy of writing very well about this; if you benefit, then thank God, not me.  And remember me in your prayers as you do so that I may be made eternally worthy of the promises of Christ.  If what you find here is superfluous, then please excuse my attempt to clarify my thoughts, for none of us writes fully of what we know.

De Spirituali Amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship), Aelred of Rievaulx