Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 3

The first main discussion in book 3 of St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is about love, and what sort of love is suited to the building of spiritual friendship:

The source and origin of friendship is love, Although love can exist without friendship, friendship can never exist without love. Love develops either from nature or from duty, from reason alone or from affection alone, or from both together. We are bound together by a special affection from nature, as a mother loves her child. From duty, when introduced and accepted by reason. From reason alone, as we love our enemies, not from a spontaneous inclination of the mind but by the constraint of the commandment. From affection alone, when someone wins the love another because of such physical qualities as beauty or strength of eloquence. 3. From reason and affection together, as when one whom reason persuades is lovable because of his meritorious virtue enters another’s spirit through his sweetness of manner and the charm of a purer life. Reason is so joined to affection that love may be chaste through reason and delightful through affection. (3.2)

The final kind of love is that which is best suited to the sort of friendship under discussion in this dialogue.

Aelred says:

In a friend, a certain four qualities should be tested: loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. (3.61)

Loyalty, argues Aelred, is at the heart of friendship. There is no betrayal, no revealing secrets, no belittling of one’s friendship, and there is freedom from suspicion. Much of Book 3 discusses what sort of person should be chosen for this truest of friendships, with the warning ‘not to set our hearts too quickly.’ (3.40) If, however, you admit into friendship someone who has some of the forewarned vices and who commits a grave sin, be patient. If this person proves to be unsuitable, do not cut off the relationship quickly, but just slowly drift away.

If one who was a friend seeks to do you wrong, you should put up with that person’s behaviour patiently and lovingly, with regard to the former affection. Respond so lovingly and reputably that disgrace falls on the other person, not yourself.

However, it is always preferable to avoid the above through testing a potential friend, letting someone into your confidences and trust little by little.

The monks say that this is all well and good, but does not Aelred himself embrace many people who would make unsuitable friends? He responds:

With all affection I embrace many whom I do not admit into the intimacies of friendship, which consists especially in communicating all my secrets and aspirations. (3.83)

He gives the example of Jesus Christ, who loved everyone, but who still had some disciples closer than others, let alone the great crowds that followed him.

Having tested a potential friend, what do we do now? Aelred has quite little to say here, actually. He believes that such friendships will purify each other. Throughout, it is the sharing of confidences and the praying for one another that seem to do the trick. Having chosen a person of similar enough character who is also pursuing virtue and Christ, you can share with him (or her) your deep secrets, your fears and weaknesses as well as your joys and strengths. Because of the trust in this relationship, you know that your friend will not mock you or heap scorn on you for your weakness or be jealous of your strength, but give advice and pray for you as well as praise God for your victories.

So, besides whom you choose, what seems to set Aelred’s spiritual friendship apart from what most of us experience, is the intentionality. You and your spiritual friend discuss spiritual things. You have a strong relationship that you can accept criticism from each other — Aelred speaks of how a look from one of his close friends was able to calm his anger and keep him in check.

Most of us do not go deep with our friendly acquaintances, whom we have never tested, whom we have never considered going deeper with. I suspect that if we did, we would find that human intimacy leads to divine intimacy, as St Aelred recommends.

Whom might you choose as a spiritual friend, then?

4 thoughts on “Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 3

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