A Theology of Friendship

Aelred of Rievaulx: Pursuing Perfect Happiness. By John R. Sommerfeldt (Paulist Press, 997 Macarthur Blvd., Mahwah, N.J. 07430), 184 pp. PB 23.95.

Aelred of Rievaulx was an English Cistercian monk who served first as the Abbot of Revensby in Lincolnshire from 1143 to 1147 and then as the Abbot of Rievalux in North Yorkshire from 1147 till his death in 1167. The author of many historical and spiritual works, Aelred was not studied in any depth until the 1930s. In 1934 the influential Dominican, Father Bede Jarrett praised Aelred’s teaching on friendship. Since then Aelred’s treatise De spirituali amicitia has been translated into Dutch, German, English, French, Italian and Spanish. In recent years Aelred scholars have been produced by Harvard University, Fordham Univeristy, the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University and the Catholic University of America.

In his opening chapter John Sommerfeldt disposes of the claim made by homosexual advocates John Eastburn Boswell and Brian Patrick McGuire that Aelred is a representative of medieval homosexuality. He does so by quoting Marsha Dutton, an Aelred scholar who wrote: “…there is finally no way of knowing the details of Aelred’s life, much less his sexual experience or struggles…The question of Aelred’s sexuality is the wrong question…Rather, the question of importance for twentieth century readers of the Cistercian Fathers is what Aelred has to say about spiritual friendship and the love of God” (cf. “The Invented Sexual History of Aelred of Rievaulx: A Review Article,” the American Benedictine Review 47 [1996] 432).

In chapter six Sommerfeldt focuses on this teaching of spiritual friendship. There he cites the words of the Cistercian Abbot who distinguishes between love and friendship: “Though there can be love without friendship, friendship without love is impossible.” In Aelred’s analysis, “four things seem especially to pertain to friendship : love and attachment, freedom from anxiety and delight.” For one who pursues his inclination to friendship, “the friend’s loyalty, integrity and patience must be tested.” To be a friend, one must be solicitous for one’s friend, pray for him, grieve for his faults, support him when he is feeble, console him when he is sorrowful and restrain him when he is wrathful. One must correct one’s friend but never in a domineering, angry or bitter manner. Recognizing his character, one will know whether the friend will benefit more from “blandishment” or from “verbal chastisement.”

The desire for friendship is natural and encouraged by experience. Christ’s friendship for Mary, Martha and Lazarus provides us with an outstanding example which will lead us to the contemplation of God in this world and to union with him in the next. In every true friendship Christ must be in the midst.

In this scholarly work Sommerfeldt does not limit himself to Aelred’s doctrine of spiritual friendship but by a wide range of quotes and references to the Abbot’s many writings he presents a comprehensive view of the Cistercian’s religious teaching. It should come as no surprise that this teaching which has been honored by a host or orthodox Catholic scholars is in harmony with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

At the outset Aelred insists that because “God has stamped his image on the very nature of the rational soul that human nature is good and capable of happiness.” Affirming the goodness of the body and the soul, Aelred holds that in the latter there are the powers of intellect, will, memory and affectus which is “a sort of spontaneous inclination of the mind toward someone.” Though man’s powers remain intact after Adam’s sin, the disorder created by the fall can only be healed by God. The restoration of the human condition is contingent upon the Incarnation. As a result of this divine intervention, God through his grace inclines the will both to choose freely what is good and to effect it.

Since man must cooperate with grace, Aelred teaches that to overcome the wound of ignorance which fallen man has inherited, one must attain humility by meditating on nature, scripture, himself and God. To perfect the will, one must renounce the love of self “which brings forth pride, seduces the senses…and impedes the perfection of the divine commands.” To inculcate true love of neighbor, one must be submissive to his elders, conciliating with his peers and considerate to his juniors. Most important, however, is the ardor one should have in his love of Christ both in his humanity as well as in his divinity.

Together with classical spiritual writers Aelred explains the necessity of contrition and confession in the work of restoration. One can also find in his doctrine traces of the three ages of the interior life (i.e., the Purgative, the Illuminative and the Unitative). He shows the necessity of detachment, emphasizes the practice of the four moral virtues and recommends for their accomplishment the practices of silence and solitude, simplicity, obedience, chastity and prayer.

The final chapter treats Aelred’s teaching on contemplation which the Abbot based on 2 Corinthians 12:2 and which Sommerfeldt calls “a rapturous foretaste of celestial bliss.” Since there can be great self deception on this matter, Aelred’s own caveat is appropriate. He writes: “Spiritual intoxication, however is sometimes good, sometimes bad. Bad when, through some sort of excess or self centeredness, one fails to serve the ends of justice and reason. Good when, through revelation or contemplation or great love, one rises above human reason and is intoxicated with the riches of the house of God and made drunk from its torrent of pleasure.”

Aelred’s teaching is the joyful news that man has been made for the friendship of God which is begun on earth through grace and culminates in the beatific vision in heaven.

James Buckley, F.S.S.P.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary
Denton, Nebr.

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