Today is the traditional date for the feast of St. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 12 January 1167).
St. Aelred’s most familiar extant work is On Spiritual Friendship (read an excerpt here), a work that some have interpreted as a paean to same-sex love.
Aelred was of noble descent, and was born in the north of England, in 1109. Being educated in learning and piety, he was invited by David, the pious king of Scotland, to his court, made master of his household, and highly esteemed both by him and the courtiers. His virtue shone with bright luster in the world, particularly his meekness, which Christ declared to be his favorite virtue, and the distinguishing mark of his true disciples. The following is a memorable instance to what a degree he possessed this virtue: a certain person of quality having insulted and reproached him in the presence of the king, Aelred heard him out with patience, and thanked him for his charity and sincerity, in telling him his faults. This behavior had such an influence on his adversary as made him ask his pardon on the spot.
Another time, whilst he was speaking on a certain matter, one interrupted him with very harsh reviling expressions: the servant of God heard him with tranquility, and afterwards resumed his discourse with the same calmness and presence of mind as before. His desires were ardent to devote himself entirely to God, by forsaking the world; but the charms of friendship detained him some time longer in it, and were fetters to his soul; reflecting notwithstanding that he must sooner or later be separated by death from those he loved most, he condemned his own cowardice, and broke at once those bands of friendship, which were more agreeable to him than all other sweets of life. He describes the situation of his soul under this struggle, and says, “Those who saw me, judging by the gaudy show which surrounded me, and not knowing what passed within my soul, said, speaking of me: “Oh, how well is it with him! how happy is he! But they knew not the anguish of my mind; for the deep wound in my heart gave me a thousand tortures, and I was not able to hear the intolerable stench of my sins.” But after he had taken his resolution, he says, “I began then to know, by a little experience, what immense pleasure is found in thy service, and how sweet that peace is, which is its inseparable companion.” To relinquish entirely all his worldly engagements, he left Scotland, and embraced the austere Cistercian order, at Rieval, in a valley upon the banks of the Rie, in Yorkshire, where a noble lord, called Walter Especke, had founded a monastery in 1122.
At the age of twenty-four, in 1133, he became a monk under the first abbot, William, a disciple of St. Bernard. Fervour adding strength to his tender delicate body, he set himself cheerfully about practicing the greatest austerities, and employed much of his time in prayer and the reading of pious books. He converted his heart with great ardor to the love of God, and by this means finding all his mortifications sweet and light, he cried out, “That yoke doth not oppress, but raiseth the soul; that burden hath wings, not weight.” He speaks of divine charity always in raptures, and by his frequent ejaculations on the subject, it seems to have been the most agreeable occupation of his soul. “May thy voice,” says he, “sound in my ears, O good Jesus, that my heart may learn how to love thee, that my mind may love thee, that the interior powers, and, as it were, bowels of my soul, and very marrow of my heart, may love thee, and that my affections may embrace thee, my only true good, my sweet and delightful joy! What is love? my God! If I mistake not, it is the wonderful delight of the soul, so much the more sweet as more pure, so much the more overflowing and inebriating as more ardent. He who loves thee, possesses thee; and he possesses thee in proportion as he loves, because thou art love. This is that abundance with which thy beloved are inebriated, melting away from themselves, that they may pass into thee, by loving thee.” He had been much delighted in his youth with reading Tully; but after his conversion found that author, and all other reading, tedious and bitter, which was not sweetened with the honey of the holy name of Jesus, and seasoned with the word of God, as he says in the preface to his book, On Spiritual Friendship.
He was much edified with the very looks of a holy monk, called Simon, who had despised high birth, an ample fortune, and all the advantages of mind and body, to serve God in that penitential state. This monk went and came as one deaf and dumb, always recollected in God; and was such a lover of silence, that he would scarcely speak a few words to the prior on necessary occasions. His silence however was sweet, agreeable, and full of edification. Our saint says of him, “The very sight of his humility stifled my pride, and made me blush at the immortification of my looks. The law of silence practiced among us, prevented my ever speaking to him deliberately; but one day, on my speaking a word to him inadvertently, his displeasure appeared in his looks for my infraction of the rule of silence; and he suffered me to lie some time prostrate before him to expiate my fault; for which I grieved bitterly, and which I never could forgive myself.” This holy monk having served God eight years in perfect fidelity, died in 1142, in wonderful peace, repeating with his last breath, “I will sing eternally, O Lord, thy mercy, thy mercy, thy mercy!”
St. Aelred, much against his inclination, was made abbot of a new monastery of his order, founded by William, Earl of Lincoln, at Revesby, in Lincolnshire, in 1142, and of Rieval, over three hundred monks, in 1143. Describing their life, he says, that they drank nothing but water; eat little, and that coarse; labored hard, slept little, and on hard boards; never spoke, except to their superiors on necessary occasions; carried the burdens that were laid on them without refusing any; went wherever they were led; had not a moment for sloth, or amusements of any kind, and never had any law-suit or dispute. St. Aelred also mentions their mutual charity and peace in the most affecting manner, and is not able to find words to express the joy he felt at the sight of every one of them. His humility and love of solitude made him constantly refuse many bishoprics which were pressed upon him. Pious reading and prayer were his delight. Even in times of spiritual dryness, if he opened the divine books, he suddenly found his soul pierced with the light of the Holy Ghost. His eyes, though before as dry as marble, flowed with tears, and his heart abandoned itself to sighs, accompanied with a heavenly pleasure, by which he was ravished in God. He died in 1166, and the fifty-seventh of his age, having been twenty-two years abbot.
– Biography adapted from Alban Butler’s LIVES OF THE SAINTS.
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com