“By the law of charity we are ordered to welcome into the bosom of love not only our friends but also our enemies. But we call friends only those to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents.” ~ St. Aelred
Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – January 12, 1167) was a Cistercian monk who belonged to the Catholic religious order called the Cistercians. He lived out his life in northern England. One of the works he is best known for is his De spiritali amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship).
Aelred states that God instituted human friendship in creation and grounded it in Christ’s presence. Therefore, in this life it leads directly to the experience of Christ and in the next life to eternal friendship with God. He categorizes human friendships as three differing types: the carnal, the worldly, and the spiritual. “Now the spiritual, which we call true friendship, is desired…for its own natural worth and for the affections of the human heart, so that its fruit and reward is nothing but itself.”
“But how happy, how carefree, how joyful you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress, to whom you may entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans. And what is more delightful than so to unite spirit to spirit and so to make one out of two?” ~ St. Aelred
Aelrod mentions some benefits of spiritual friendship: “the advantages of counsel in uncertainty, consolation in adversity, and other help of this kind”. He goes on to quote Cicero in saying: “Friendship so cushions adversity and chastens prosperity that among mortals almost nothing can be enjoyed without a friend”.
I can relate in many ways to Aelrod’s quote of Cicero. It seems that in those times I most acutely feel that I am without the type of friend Aelrod describes as a “spiritual friend”, I have a difficult time deriving any pleasure out of my day to day activities. Everything from cleaning the house to preparing a meal; shopping and work; it all seems to lack a certain sense of enjoyment and satisfaction for me. While maybe laziness is partly to blame, but without that “special person” in my life whom my heart seems to long for, one that I would say greatly resembles the “spiritual friend” that Aelrod describes, I sometimes lack the motivation to do even the most basic of chores for myself: cleaning, cooking, shaving, etc. They just seem to have no purpose or meaning to me when I am in those periods of feeling alone and having no one to share my life with. Of course, the answer to the longings of my heart are to be found in Christ. However, in reading the writings of Aelrod and others, I sometimes wonder what place deep, mutual friendships will have in my life and if just maybe it could be through these “spiritual friendships” that I can be drawn even closer to experiencing more of Christ and His love.
Aelred defines human friendship as prompted by both reason and affection, grounded in love. He insists that “friendship can last only among the good”. His definition of the good: “I call those good who within the limits of our mortal life live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world”. He declares that it is vital to human happiness, distinguishes humans from animals, and is God’s greatest blessing to humankind. Those who reject friendship, Aelred says (quoting Cicero), harm themselves, rejecting their humanity: “those who banish friendship from life seem to pluck the sun from the universe”. They may be called “not human beings but beasts”. Aelred recommends four steps for building friendship: choosing, testing, and accepting the friend, and then perfecting the friendship.
“Thus rising from that holy love with which a friend embraces a friend to that with which a friend embraces Christ, one may take the spiritual fruit of friendship fully and joyfully into the mouth, while looking forward to all abundance in the life to come.” ~ St. Aelred
From Book One of Aelrod’s “On Spiritual Friendship”:
- 20. Furthermore, a friend is called the guardian of love, or, as some prefer, the guardian of the soul itself.10 Why? Because it is proper for my friend to be the guardian of mutual love or of my very soul, that he may in loyal silence protect all the secrets of my spirit and may bear and endure according to his ability anything wicked he sees in my soul. For the friend will rejoice with my soul rejoicing, grieve with it grieving, and feel that everything that belongs to a friend belongs to himself.
- 21. Friendship is that virtue, therefore, through which by a covenant of sweetest love our very spirits are united, and from many are made one. Hence even the philosophers of this world placed friendship not among the accidents of mortal life but among the virtues that are eternal. Solomon seems to agree with them in this verse from Proverbs: “a friend loves always.” So he obviously declares that friendship is eternal if it is true, but if it ceases to exist, then although it seemed to exist, it was not true friendship.
- 22. In our reading, then, why do we find that grave enmities have risen between the greatest friends?
- 23. In its own place, God willing, we will discuss that more fully. Meanwhile, I want you to believe two truths: that no friend ever existed who could harm anyone he had once welcomed into friendship, and that a person who even if injured ceases to cherish someone he has once loved, had not tasted the delights of true friendship, because a friend loves always.
- 24. Though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always. And as our Jerome says, “a friendship that can end was never true.”
“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love; in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness; in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two souls become one.” ~ St. Aelred
For more reading on St. Aelrod, the following links provided me with much of the information for this article: