Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship Book 2

Book 2 of Spiritual Friendship is the shortest of the three books of St Aelred’s guide to making friends and growing spiritually. In the drama of the dialogue, a few years have passed, and Aelred has gained new dialogue partners, his original interlocutor having passed away. We have a recap of what went before, and then discussion of the importance of friendship.

Basing his discussion in Scripture, Aelred sees friendship as one of the highest goods in a person’s life. Without friendship, we are like wild animals. Furthermore, friendship provides a foundation for the virtues. Friendship is medicine. One elegant passage runs:

Consequently, friendship for the rich is a glory, for exiles a country, for the poor remission of taxes, for the sick medicine, for the dead life, for the healthy a benefit, for the weak strength, and for the vigorous a reward. (2.14)

… One truth surpasses all these: close to perfection is that level of friendship that consists in the love and knowledge of God, when one who is the friend of another becomes the friend of God, according to the verse of our Savior in the Gospel: “I shall no longer call you servants but friends.” (2.14)

Such wonderful friendship, though, such friendship that brings excellence and lays the foundation for virtue, exists only among the good. To be more precise, Aelred says that it exists perfectly among the perfect, but has its origins among the good and progresses as they themselves progress in perfection.

Pre-modern Christians have no qualms in stating outright that if we are less holy, we will enjoy the benefits of life less fully.

Nevertheless, the argument as it sits in Aelred, with his descriptions of what friendship is, makes sense. Friendship is a unanimity of mind, a deep bond of harmony. It is the foundation for virtue and a balm in distress. Moreover, and this is a vital point first made in book 2, friendship is a pathway to Christ. It only stands to reason, then, that we will enjoy its benefits more the more we become like Christ.

Consider as follows. Let’s say I suffer from the passion of anger, due in part to my own prickliness, in part to my own selfishness, in part to my own pettiness as I judge others. This will limit the number of deep, true, spiritual friendships I have, and limit the depth of any friendship I form. But if I am able to acknowledge that I have such a weakness, and profess it to a friend — well, my friendship has become a stepping-stone to becoming more like Christ.

Moreover, my friend can pray for me about this problem, and I can pray for him. As I overcome my own anger and the selfishness whence it comes, I will be better able to listen to my friend’s weaknesses and to take his concerns to Christ in prayer. As I pray for him, and as he prays for me, we both become holier. Our mutual growth in holiness will stir us up to become even holier.

But if I remain petty and selfish, judging my friend for the ways in which he is unlike me, neither will I have the vulnerability to open up to him, nor will I have the magnanimity to take his own concerns seriously.

This is just my own imagining. Nonetheless, I think it true. So let’s find someone at least as good as ourselves to be vulnerable with, to pray with, and to be friends with.

This will be a path to Jesus and the heart of God.

St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1

I just finished reading St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1 (Aelred d. 1167). You can read the introduction through to the end of book 1 for free as a publisher’s preview from Liturgical Press (the Benedictines who now publish [or at least distribute] Cistercian Publications) if you like. I thought I would share a few reflections on Book 1 here.

The whole of Spiritual Friendship is a dialogue, and Book 1 consists of an abbot named Aelred conversing with a monk named Ivo on the question of friendship. For a starting point for the discussion, they take up Cicero’s definition from On Friendship 6.20:

Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity. (Aelred, 1.11)

From here it is pondered whether this is attainable outside of grace and of Christ. As they proceed, three kinds of human relationship that might be called ‘friendship’ emerge:

  1. Carnal friendship: Simply enjoying things, mostly sin, with another person. Like Augustine’s friends and the pears, or like a band of thieves.
  2. Worldly friendship: Maintaining a relationship with someone else for personal gain. They mostly discuss wealth, business, and the like, but we can imagine ‘career advancement’ or, in their own 12th-century context, ‘advancement at court’, being the same basic thing.
  3. Spiritual friendship: Friends who are friends simply for the sake of each other’s company.

This third friendship is not charity (caritas), for charity embraces both friend and foe, whereas in spiritual friendship you can entrust everything to each other. Moreover, this friendship is between people with ‘agreement in things human and divine’, so it differs from caritas since caritas is to be given to all, friend, foe, stranger.

To distinguish it from the other two friendships, Aelred says:

Now the spiritual, which we call true friendship, is desired not with an eye to any worldly profit or for any extraneous reason, but for its own natural worth and for the emotion of the human heart, so that its fruit and reward is nothing but itself. (1.45)

An important idea that emerges is the statement that friendship is part of human nature — therefore, it is good, and it has been there since creation. Evidence for this comes from Genesis, where it is said that it is not good for the man to be alone, so the woman is created out of him. This is also, for those who have an interest, used as evidence that male and female by nature are equals.

Friendship, however, was corrupted at the fall by cupidity, avarice, envy that brought in contentions, rivalries, hatreds, and suspicions. This is the state of the world we live in. But true, that is, spiritual, friendship is still possible.

As the book draws towards its end, Aelred also makes a provocative statement:

if you weigh these teachings carefully, you will discover that friendship is so close to or steeped in wisdom that I would almost claim that friendship is nothing other than wisdom. (1.67)

Ivo disputes that, and as part of his wider explanation, Aelred says:

Since in friendship, then, eternity may flourish, truth light the way, and charity delight, see for yourself whether you should withhold the name of wisdom where these three co-exist. (1.68)

Some thoughts arising from this very brief account of only a few points in Aelred’s text.

First, not having read Cicero’s On Friendship and so speaking second hand, it seems that from texts such as that and from what Aelred says, that in the ancient mindset, life was a contest — so most friendships were of the ‘worldly’ kind at best. What Aelred has not imagined in this part of the book is that kind of friendship that arises between persons of mutual interests but where the relationship ultimately does exist for its own sake but will never progress to the kind of spiritual friendship that I understand the second and third books discuss.

What do we do with this? Do we see it as a foundation for true friendship that cannot be realised in the unregenerate outside of the grace of Christ? That said friends, if converted, would find themselves strengthened even more?

Second, I think this text was important in Aelred’s day for much the same reason as in our own. St Aelred is writing in the same era as the troubadours of France, the same era as courtly love, of Chrétien de Troyes, of Marie de France, of others. This is an age where a secular literature emerged of ‘true’ love being the highest good, rising (in literature) even higher than that of the Christian God, where ‘true’ love is erotic and not bound by marriage but often of necessity found only in adultery.

We may no longer esteem adultery so highly, but we are not so far from the courtly ethic of love and its power and its importance as might be though.

In such a context, to find a great, high, and magnificent ideal in friendship is powerful. And then to find in friendship a pathway to Christ through those humans around us — this is a message that we need in our age that is at once more connected and more lonely than ever, our age of sex without intimacy, and online ‘friends’ we’ve never met.

Let’s see where the next two books will take me…

The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.

Living tradition

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

I am reading Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, and he is discussing what tradition is and how it works in the first chapter. Tradition is much-contested ground ever since the days of the Reformation when everyone, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic (for want of better words), was trying to sift through the mass of the deposit as it stood in the midst of Renaissance decadence, late mediaeval scholasticism, corruption amongst clerics and princes alike, and true devotion.

Which parts were true devotion? And which true devotion was rightly placed? Which parts of this deposit are either apostolic by antiquity or at least Spirit-driven consequences of apostolic tradition, which are man-made things to be abandoned, and which are adiaphora?

These debates are often framed in terms of pitting Scripture and tradition against each other. In Browne’s very capable Victorian book about the 39 Articles, he makes a good case against there being an oral tradition of things not in Scripture that must, nevertheless, be believed. In good Anglican form, he is careful to state that the tradition of exegesis and liturgy, especially of the Fathers, is important for devotion and the right interpretation of Scripture, but nothing independent of Scripture is to enjoined upon Christian souls as essential for salvation.

In these terms, tradition seems fairly dead, doesn’t it?

But, as the Eastern Orthodox apologists like to point out, we are all part of traditions, even Baptists at Bible study.

Bunge’s idea of tradition is something different:

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. (p. 24, emphasis original)

Two years ago, the book I read on the bus to visit my wife and son at hospital after he was born was Archimandrite Zacharias’ book Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. I was given this book by Father Raphael, from whom I have received much spiritual insight. The main source for Archimandrite Zacharias’ teaching is actually sacred Scripture, but the second-most popular citation in the notes is Elder Sophrony, followed by St Silouan the Athonite. Elder Sophrony was Archimandrite Zacharias’ spiritual father, and St Silouan was Sophrony’s.

As I read the book, I felt like I was encountering a living tradition, not simply a bunch of facts handed down, but an entire way of life, from Athos to Essex. In fact (now that I write it), Archimandrite Zacharias is Father Raphael’s spiritual father (after the falling asleep of Father John [memory eternal!]), and if I were Orthodox, I would hope Father Raphael would be humble enough to accept the challenge of being my spiritual father.

Tradition is the encounter and fellowship with those who have gone before, seeking to live and apply their encounter with Jesus to our circumstances now.

One of the richest loci for the tradition is, of course, the liturgy. As Father Andrew Louth points out in Discerning the Mystery, when St Basil the Great discusses the unwritten tradition of the church in On the Holy Spirit, the things he talks about are all liturgical.

Given that I am now reading Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, this point takes on a new kind of resonance. The Prayer Book was a way in which Christians of Cranmer’s world were able to accept that fellowship with what has gone before, but also sift through it, seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we truly join in fellowship with the Christians of the centuries who have also used so many of those forms, from (at the latest) the Apostolic Tradition (modern attribution: Hippolytus of Rome, mid-200s), whether in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Elizabethan English.

We also, with greater specificity, join with the Anglicans around the world and through the centuries (until the liturgical movement of the later 20th century), whether in Australia or Kenya or Canada or Canterbury. We enter into that fellowship of faith, a Reformational liturgy rooted in the catholic tradition (note the lower-case c).

Arguably (and here perhaps I  become controversial), inasmuch as the Prayer Book’s theology is an attempt to restore to prominence certain apostolic and Augustinian themes obscured in England at the time of the Reformation, we could also argue that in using it we find ourselves in the august company of St Paul and St Augustine.

At prayer, we seek God. And God comes to us. We find ourselves in communion, in fellowship with Him, and through Him, with the Christians through the centuries who have also sought Him. And if we choose to submit ourselves to them in our own seeking of God, to fellowship with them — then that is living tradition.

The Patristic Middle Ages

It is only natural for the Anglican who becomes interested in pre-Reformation Christianity to turn to the writers, art, customs, liturgy, etc., of medieval England, or of Britain more widely, even encompassing Ireland. Many are thus drawn in the world of Bede and Cuthbert, or of Anselm and the scholastics. The great soaring cathedrals, ars anglicana embroidery, reliquaries, liturgical practices from England are used as aids in devotion.

Even if we restrict ourselves to writers, there are many great specimens from the English Middle Ages. Aldhelm, Alcuin, Aelfric, and Aelred spring to mind. Many are no doubt proud of the English origins of Alexander de Hales (d. 1245 at Paris). Alexander drives the mind to scholasticism and Robert Grosseteste. Aldhelm reminds us of the early days of English Christianity, and thus St Bede the Venerable.

The mystically-minded find themselves devouring The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle. Some even read Margery Kempe.

If not with Bede, many Anglicans seeking older roots find themselves in happy company amongst Celts — Columbanus, Columba, Adamnan, Brigid, Brendan, and more, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

But if we want to nourish ourselves on pre-Reformation English fare (porridge, mostly, I imagine), we should be aware of the nourishment the English themselves had — and that nourishment, whether we are thinking about Aldhelm (d. 709) or Grosseteste (d. 1253), was (besides sacred Scripture, of course) the Church Fathers.

This fact is seen, of course, in their writings themselves. I am at the moment looking at the transmission and influence of the Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (compiled in late 700s). This homiliary consists of patristic homilies organised according to the liturgical calendar, and it was definitely used in England — passages were used in the Old English homilies of Aelfric (and others; Aelfric d. c. 1010), and it influenced Cistercian homiliaries, and hence the works of Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167). We have multiple copies of homiliaries descended from that of Paul the Deacon from English monasteries.

Robert Grosseteste, an early scholar at Oxford, wrote a commentary on Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy. Much of Bede’s commentaries on Scripture is quotation from the Fathers. If we wish to claim Anselm (who did most of his writing either before he was Archbishop of Canterbury or in exile in Italy), he is heavily indebted to St Augustine of Hippo (Giles Gasper has done work on Anselm’s wider patristic sources in Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance).

The manuscripts tell the same story. Looking through the handy (if sadly imperfect) list from the Durham Priory Library Recreated project, of books known to have been in the priory library, citing by where the appear in the list, we have works by:

  • Gregory the Great (many)
  • Boethius (I always think he should be included)
  • St Benedict of Nursia (both Latin original and English translation)
  • Jerome (many)
  • Isidore of Seville (several)
  • Augustine (many)
  • John Chrysostom (several)
  • Cassiodorus (I think he goes with Boethius)
  • the anonymous Opus Imperfectum in Mattheum
  • Origen
  • Didymus the Blind
  • Eugippius
  • John Cassian
  • the Vitae Patrum, which is largely lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Ambrose of Milan
  • Prudentius
  • Fulgentius of Ruspe (they also have the mythographer, but he’s someone else)
  • Ennodius
  • Julian of Toledo
  • Peter Chrysologus
  • Lactantius (mind you, this is a printed book from 1509)

In that list are many ‘etc’s, some of which are patristic. As well, there are many canon law books, which are largely topically-arranged excerpts from patristic-era canon law documents, such as the canons of church councils, papal letters, and writings from major church fathers like Augustine. There are also works of Peter Lombard; his Sentences are themselves by and large topically arranged patristic excerpts, and much of his Bible commentaries is chains of quotations from the Fathers (if I remember correctly). The ‘Omeliarium’, of which Durham has two volumes, is the patristic homiliary of Paul the Deacon, mentioned above. I see another two-volume set of homilies — not sure which. The Bibles are also very frequently glossed with commentary from the church fathers in the margins.

In other words, if you want to nourish your faith in a manner consistent with the English Middle Ages, I recommend reading the church fathers as well as Aelred and Aelfric. They certainly did.

Coming up soon: The interconnected Middle Ages.

Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I was chatting with a Roman Catholic friend, formerly a very engaged Anglican of evangelical bent, recently. He was talking about the rise of “industry” as a virtue in the early modern period (“industry” is not a virtue in the ancient and medieval worlds) and how its rise is involved in the denigration of the contemplative tradition — I, myself, later thought of Gibbon’s criticism of the ‘idle mouths’ of the Later Roman Empire that included monks.*

Basically, today contemplation must always be subservient to action. If you want to sit around in silence, what you do is supposed to outweigh it. The contemplative person, the mystic, has no place in this worldview. They are idle, potentially lazy, and useless.

I remarked that this is the complete opposite of St John of the Cross (whom we both love, of course), and that everyone today thinks this way.

He said, ‘Not the Carmelites!’

And then he said something that I’ve felt sometimes as well. He said that one of the things he has appreciated about becoming Roman Catholic is the presence of an ongoing contemplative tradition in the Roman Catholic tradition, and that such a tradition is something that is lacking in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is, by and large, devoid of this. It is upbeat and happy. It is also frequently shallow in its approach to suffering — let’s all read our Bibles and sing some happy songs!

This feels like caricature, but much depends on your corner of the evangelical world. (Much depends on your corner of Roman Catholicism, too, of course.) I can think of many times when simply reading the Bible has been presented by evangelicals as a cure-all, and of the discomfort one sometimes has with always singing at a fast tempo in a major key, despite the fundamental brokenness of all people.

I have often felt that Protestantism, and the evangelical world I have spent most of my life in (although that word evangelical is being destroyed and sapped of meaning by American politicising), is not sure of mysticism/contemplation. I think on the many people, including evangelical Anglicans, who say that they have no sympathy with or understanding of monasticism.

I, on the other hand, have had a longstanding interest in monks. The single-minded devotion of the Desert Fathers. The power of St Francis (whose legacy is both active and contemplative). The mystical writings of St John of the Cross. The daily grind of La Grande Chartreuse. Julian of Norwich. Cassian, Benedict, Anselm, Bernard. Cuthbert and Bede. I’ve blogged on all of these.

I have no doubt that there are faithful Roman Catholics who have no use for monks. However, Roman Catholicism has that rich, contemplative spiritual tradition alongside Roman Catholic social teaching and social action.

The mystical path for a Protestant does not usually involve going to your pastor for spiritual direction but, rather, books (and, today, the Internet). It is fraught with danger, but also excitement. And those who set forth are not alone.

There are Protestants who are seeking to plug into the ancient ways of contemplation/mysticism — James Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home both come to mind. But their engagement with the mystical tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is not part of an ongoing living tradition. We Protestants have to go it alone, or make it up with each other as we go along.

I was going to put this forward as a liability, but maybe it is not, which derails anything further I wanted to write when I started this piece.

It forces us to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us into the darkness, the silence, hesychia.

And that’s a good thing, I’m sure.

*Note: Monks of Late Antiquity not actually idle mouths, since a great many of them were involved in the cottage industry or farming.

It’s not as though the crisis in western Christianity were new…

Michael Green in 1981:

When the church has grown so uncertain of its own beliefs, when it has become so preoccupied with its own structures, when it has degenerated very largely into a spectator sport for those who like that kind of thing, is it surprising that people have turned from it towards something that actually works? Ironically, the church may well prove to be the last sector in the community which comes to believe in the supernatural. –I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, p. 116