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…

‘What piqued your interest in monasticism?’

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

A correspondent recently asked me this question. His answer was fairly straightforward: He met St Bernard and the Cistercians in his final semester of undergrad, and there was no looking back.

I, on the other hand, am incapable of straightforward answers!

Where did it all begin?

First there was St Francis. In actual truth, first there was John Michael Talbot, many of whose CDs (and, earlier, tapes!) my parents own. This led to St Francis, and my interest in the ascetic of Assisi was increased by his apperance in Grade 11 history class. This persisted, including reading John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of St Francis in undergrad. But, like many, it was a narrow interest — just St Francis, not the movement, not other ‘monastic’ types.

Then came St John of the Cross. In high school, I went to Steve Bell’s concerts in Thunder Bay every year. One year, he sang a song inspired by St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Then in first-year undergrad, I encountered this sort of … wild … Roman Catholic priest outside one night, staring at the stars. He said that the night sky always reminded him of St John of the Cross — so I went back to my dorm room and found the poem Dark Night on the internet. The idea, the ideal, of mysticism and union with the divine became embedded in my mind, but I did not read the whole book until the year after graduation.

The Desert Fathers took hold. Although I took a number of medieval courses in undergrad, including one where we read the Rule of St Benedict, the various monks encountered there never really grabbed me the way St Francis did as an individual, nor the way Carmelite mysticism did. Still, Sts Francis and John had tilled the soil. I was ready. In third year, when thinking of potential essay topics for the course ‘Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire’, a friend asked why I shouldn’t write about those crazy people who moved into the desert. So I did.

Cyprus solidified it. It was living on Cyprus for the year after graduation that made me maintain this interest. There I read St John of the Cross’s Dark Night for myself. I started in on The Philokalia. I met the Orthodox and their own ongoing engagement with monasticism, their own monastic tradition.

These aren’t the only points — I also read Esther de Waal’s book about the Rule of St Benedict, Seeking God, and a few other things, but these are the most important moments in this part of my spiritual autobiography.

So now, my own personal ‘spirituality’ is informed by St Athanasius, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, St John Cassian, (St?) Evagrius Ponticus, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Philokalia, St John of the Cross, The Rule of St Benedict, St Teresa of Ávila, St Theophan the Recluse, St Gregory Palamas, St Maximus the Confessor, St Aelred of Rievaulx, Archimandrite Sophrony, St Porphyrios — all swirling around in there somewhere, showing me how poorly I measure up to the yardstick of Christ, but also showing how great His grace is for sinners like us.

“Evil here and evil there” “The burden of them is intolerable”

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

St Anselm, ‘Prayer to St John the Baptist’:

Flee, flee,
you who are of I know not what horrible substance;
flee from yourself; be terribly; afraid of yourself.
But, alas, you cannot flee from yourself,
nor can you look at yourself, because you cannot bear it.
For if you could bear it, without a horror of grief,
you would find your toleration intolerable.
Insofar as you can tolerate yourself
you are like the first sinner,
and thereby you are less tolerable to god,
for to tolerate yourself is not courage,
but the blunt edge of death;
it is not health, it is hardened sin;
it comes not from consolation but from damnation.
I cannot bear the interior horror of my face
without a huge groan in my heart.
So then, I cannot fly from myself,
nor can I look at myself, for I cannot bear myself.

*

But see, it is worse still if I do not look at myself;
for then I am deceived about myself.
O too heavy weight of anguish.
If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
If I consider myself, what I see terrifies me;
if I do not consider myself, I fall to my damnation.
If I look at myself, it is an intolerable horror;
if I do not look at myself, death is unavoidable.
Evil here, worse there, ill on every side;
but there is too much evil here,
too much that is worse there,
too much ill on every side.
For his very wretched whom his conscience torments,
when he cannot flee from it;
and even more wretched is he
who looks into his own damnation,
when he is not able to avoid it;
very unhappy is he who is horrible in his own eyes;
and more unhappy still will he be
when he undergoes eternal death.
Very wretched is he who is continually afraid
of the filthy horror of himself;
but more wretched still will he be
whom anguish will torture eternally because of his sins.
Evil here, and evil there;
too much here, and too much there.

-Trans. Sister Benedicta Ward, The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, pp. 130-131

The Book of Common Prayer 1662:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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.

Classic and Charismatic 3: Monomaniacs for God

The subtitle of this piece borrowed from Mark Galli.

Returning to the theme of my current theological-devotional position in relation to my charismatic Anglican upbringing, one thing that often characterises — or caricatures, depending on source — charismatics is utter devotion to Almighty God. Charismatics want to be at church whenever there is a service. Some of them go to one church because they like the music, then a service at a different church because they like the preaching. They go to mid-week prayer meetings and Bible studies. They give up time to go out on the streets and not merely do ‘street evangelism’ but what the Durham Vineyard Church calls ‘treasure-hunting’ — going out and speaking the truth of God directly into the hurting hearts of strangers on the street. They give of their time and money to serve the church.

They are fervent.

They annoy their unbelieving friends and family by talking about Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit.

They also unnerve some of their believing friends by actually talking as though God has a habit of doing things in their lives.

In many ways, this was me at 17. I talked about Christianity at school with my friends. I went to special services at church as well as to youth group and ISCF meetings at school — on which I served as a member of the executive committee — and helped run Alpha at my church. I have memories of myself and some friends sitting in the living room singing worship songs as my brother played the piano — just because we wanted to.

Lately, there have been some thorns trying to choke this. I pray the Holy Spirit will weed the garden of my heart!

And one of his tools, as I investigate the history of his life in the world of men (aka ‘ecclesiastical history’), is the fervent devotion of generations past. To take one example: as a father of only two whom I love but find draining on time and energy, I find the image of Susanna Wesley, mother of nine living children (a further ten died in infancy), hiding beneath the table to do her devotions.

Or, considering my current direction of research, the works of Evagrius Ponticus are always challenging but hopeful. His works are ascetic, and I feel like I will never really progress from praktike to theoria, let alone theologia. But I find the study of Evagrius does not leave me feeling barren. I find, rather, his whole-heart recommendations of utter devotion to God light a fire under my rear. Rather than cause me to succumb to acedia, they help me become more diligent.

I have recently started reading Alan Jacobs’ The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. Obviously, I am sympathetic towards the Prayer-Book party, whether they are facing down Puritans or Papists. But their conviction that doing so was a means of securing true ‘evangelical’ worship for the Church of England inspires me to take up a Prayer Book and a Bible more often. Monomaniacs for God who went into exile because they believed that the right worship of God was being trodden upon by Cromwellian religion — whether you agree with Prayer-Book worship, their devotion to Christ is part of their support of the book. So worthy of emulation.

We, today, are lazy and flaccid Christians in the West. We are practical atheists. We need to be reminded of what true religion looks like, whether Perpetua being slain in the arena, St Teresa in ecstasy, the Franciscans calling out the wealthy to repent, or the charismatics bringing the comfort of Christ to a hurting world.

Like so many believers of history, I want to become a monomaniac for God again. I think their theology and devotional practices will help…

The Interconnected Middle Ages

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

Let us return to the topic of pre-Reformation Christianity in England. One of the most important other facts about it was that it wasn’t just in England. However wide the English may think the English Channel and the North Sea are, the island of Britain has always had strong social, intellectual, political, economic, and whatever other kind of ties to continental Europe.

Consider two of the men I mentioned in my last post — Alexander de Hales and Anselm of Canterbury. The former, although an Englishman, spent his entire scholarly career in France, from what I can tell. The latter was not English and wrote most of his major works while a monk/prior/abbot in Normandy before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. A third of the ‘A’s — Alcuin of York — spent most of his career on the continent as well.

One of our oldest complete Latin Bibles is the Codex Amiatinus in Amiata, Italy. It has been demonstrated that this codex was actually made in St Bede’s monastery in Northumberland. And, interestingly enough, it is a copy of an Italian Bible brought North by Bede’s spiritual father, Benedict Biscop. Elsewhere in Italy we find one of the most famous books of Old English literature, the Vercelli Book. Both of these will have been left behind by pilgrims.

Canterbury and Durham may have been important sites of pilgrimage in mediaeval England, but the English went on pilgrimage to Rome so much that not only were they complained of in terms of bad behaviour along the route, but there was a whole section of the city abutting the Vatican where they lived. They also went to Spain, to Santiago, one of the biggest pilgrim sites in Europe. And even when Jerusalem was not in Crusader hands, some went so far as that!

Coming to know the continental contemporaries of British theologians and devotional writers will help us enter more fully into their thought-world. It will also benefit us. Consider some of the bright lights whom I found listed as being in Durham Priory’s library:

  • St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) – One of the great theologians of the Middle Ages, he not only tamed Aristotle for Christianity in his Summa, he brought many of the riches of Greek Christianity into dialogue with his own Latin tradition. Saint of the week here.
  • St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) – Called ‘the Last of the Fathers’ by his Cistercian brothers, this is one of the greatest mystical theologians in the Latin Middle Ages. He was even Dante’s guide to the Uncreated Light. Saint of the week here.
  • Peter Lombard (1096-1160) – His Sentences became the standard theological textbook of the Latin Middle Ages, and a major exercise of many Masters and Doctors was to write a commentary on him. Thomas Aquinas did.
  • St Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115) – Ivo was Bishop of Chartres. He’s most famous for canon law compendia, but his preface to said compendia as well as his letters are worth reading. They show a man with a strong moral sense but a pastor’s heart. (I mean, expressed in mediaeval terms, so…)
  • Richard of St Victor (1110-1173) – A Scottish mystical theologian who was prior of the Augustinian Abbey of St Victor in Paris. Both scholastic and mystical, in a way. The Victorines were heavily influenced by their friends over at Clairvaux, from what I understand.
  • Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141) – A Saxon mystical theologian and exegete also at the Augustinian Abbey of St Victor in Paris.
  • Bonaventure (1221-1274) – Head-honcho Franciscan who wrote a life of St Francis as well as some pretty intense mystical theology. Saint of the week here.

There were many others, like Hrabanus Maurus, in Durham’s library. But you get the point. Christianity is never insular, not even in Britain, especially not in the Middle Ages.

Of course, now we all have more than enough reading to last a lifetime…