Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Spiritual Friendship of St. Aelred

The Prayer of St. Aelred
Sweet Lord, sweet Lord release wisdom from the seat of your greatness that it might be with us, toil with us, work with us, speak in us; may it according to your good pleasure direct our thoughts, words, and all our works and counsels, to the honor of your Name, the profit of the community and our salvation; through our friend Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen.

As I said yesterday, January 12th marks a little celebrated saint day, especially in my part of the Episcopal Church.  Today is St. Aelred of Rievaulx Day, aka the patron saint of the LGBT Episcopal group Integrity USA.  All the official sites of the church downplay Aelred's sexual orientation, but Integrity (and queer theologians) have found enough writings to show that the monastic abbot of the Cistercisan order at Rievaulx had male lovers among the monks, although the modern concept of "homosexuality" was still unknown.  

Aelred lived in the 12th century.   He served for a time in the court of King David of Scotland as a page.  He became the first abbot of the Cistercisan monastery at Rievaulx in 1146, when he was 37 years old.  He is mostly considered a historian, and spiritual director.  He died at age 57 reportedly of kidney disease.  During his lifetime, he left a record of sermons, and was commissioned by Bernard of Clairvaux to write "The Mirror of Charity," which delves into the life of someone in the Cistercisan monastery.  And then there is "Spiritual Friendship," which is written as a dialogue with another brother named Ivo.  This is probably Aelred's best-known work and it draws the distinction of the love a Christian extends to all with a special love that exists with those more intimate, made even more so by having a third-party, Christ, in the relationship.  He sees what he calls "true"friendship as not only necessary, but essential.

"In human life nothing holier can be desired, nothing more useful sought after, nothing is harder to find, nothing sweeter to experience, nothing more fruitful to possess than friendship. For it bears fruit both in this life and the next, showing forth all virtues in its sweetness and in its strength destroying vice. It softens the blows of adversity and moderates elation in prosperity...

Alas for anyone who is alone and has no one to lift him up when he falls. Without a friend one is indeed alone. But what joy it is, what security, what a delight to have someone to whom you dare to speak as to another self; to whom you are not afraid to admit that you have done something wrong, or shy of revealing some spiritual progress you have made; someone to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and with whom you can share your plans." (from Spiritual Friendship)

Given how many LGBTQI people have been treated by the Church throughout history, having a patron saint of such deep and abiding friendship, who was also a gay abbot, suits us well.  We get a taste of his "true" friendship with a monk named Simon.  When Simon died, Aelred wrote this lament:

"He was the refuge of my spirit, the sweet solace of my griefs, whose heart of love received me when fatigued by labors, whose counsel refreshed me when plunged in sadness and grief... What more is there, then, that I can say? Was it not a foretaste of blessedness thus to love and thus to be loved?"

Naturally, there are those who want to deny Aelred's sexuality.  I'm sure it would cause the Roman Catholic Church quite a bit of consternation to think that one of their spiritual writers was gay, and it certainly would call into question the ridiculous demands of celibacy among the clergy, a practice that was NOT orignially part of the church, but came into vogue as the Church became more and more powerful, and heirs would make things messy in terms of property.  But I, for one, am delighting in the knowledge that there was a St. Aelred, and that his commitment to friendship... "true" and otherwise... sets an example for us all.  Aelred knew that there was no greater power than love as expressed by the One Love.  And so we give thanks for his life and labor, which was not in vain.

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