“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” 1 John 4:16
February 3rd is the day we celebrate the life Saint Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx ( pronounced ree-VOH ). It is the saint he to whom I chose to dedicate my ministry, and to name my parish community for. Perhaps a subliminal message here, as Aelred was believed to have been homosexual and I am a gay man. I found it interesting that a gay man with a deep spirituality in God could so move the masses, to become a saint. But years of research on Saint Aelred has confirmed my attraction and respect for him above and beyond our sharing a sexual orientation. I have come to admire him greatly, and strive to reflect his love for God and his love for his friends.
Born in England in 1109, Aelred was the youngest of three brothers blessed to Eilaf, a married priest of St. Andrew’s at Hexham. Aelred apprenticed as a squire and steward, and eventually rose to appointment as the “Master of the House” to King David I of Scotland. Following his personal call to live the life of a religious, Aelred left the service of King David to enter the service of God; being ordained priest in 1134. He professed himself to the Cistercian Order of monks and rose in popularity based upon his reputation of being a great teacher. He became known as “the Saint Bernard of England”, having caused the Cistercian Order to increase in number and influence. He eventually became elected Abbot of the Cistercian’s largest monastery, that being at Rievaulx, a position he was to hold for the rest of his life. During his tenure this monastery was home to more than 350 monks.
Without doubt, his repute of being a renowned theologian and his ability to reduce his spirituality to easily understood words impacted many who sought him out and many vowed to the Order. His gift of the written word came to culmination when both King Henry II and King Edward the Confessor sought him out as well to record their biographies. In fact, so impressed and enamored was King Edward that he had Aelred preach at Westminster Abbey in his later years.
Outstanding among his countless works, are the two for which Aelred is most remembered; De Spirituali Amicita ( Our Spiritual Friendships c.1164 ) and Speculum caritatis ( Mirror of Charity c.1142 ). In both these treatises, Aelred reaffirms his most profound position- it is only by and in our love for our friends, that we can know and love God. “…[c]ome to love and be charitable to each other, then will the love and grace of God be blessed upon you.”
Throughout his life, Saint Aelred maintained that the only viable evidence of a living loving God “…beyond the beauty and wonder of nature and creation, was the love exchanged in friendship. In friendship, God lives with us and through us. Only with genuine friendship and fidelity, can we truly know God and his love for us!” He held up as evidence of this, the growing number of religious who vowed to the Order and sought to be amongst those there at Rievaulx. “I find within this place, a reverence which radiates from my brothers and warms me as if I am held in the embrace of God himself; there is protection and inspiration.”
Even in his time there was speculation that Aelred was perhaps homosexual as were those who sought his confidence. Aelred did not withdraw from these accusations, but met them full on with possibly his most prominent stand on the subject in his work Mirror of Charity- “Some emotions are not ours to command. Many will pass judgment, even in the midst of my tears that my love is to real. Let them judge as they will. But you my Lord, with your divine mercy, see not what is only outward but what is within. So then, I love those that God calls for me to love. I reach out to hold the hand that God reaches out for me to grasp, to cherish those God calls for me to cherish. A friend cleaving to friend, in the spirit of Christ.”
Ultimately this is Christ’s charge to us: ” A new command I give you- love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. ” John 13:34-35 “
For it is in the love, care and respect that we have for our friends that we find the true existence of God- His embrace, His warmth and His love for us. From our friends we draw our strength and comfort. In their laughter, we can hear God’s laughter. In their words, we can hear God’s word of encouragement and consolation. In their friendship God lives and God loves!
Santus Aelred, amicus Christi. Rogo oramus, ut nos ero similis vobis. Meritum Christi, et gratiam amicorum.
Saint Aelred, friend of Christ. Intercede we pray, that we may be like you, deserving of Christ and the grace of friends.
Reference material: Aelred of Rievaulx- The Way of Friendship, selected spiritual writings. Fr. M. Basil Pennington. New City Press. Hyde Park, NY. (c) 2001. ISBN 1-565348-128-3