Friday, 12 January 2007

St Aelred, love and friendship

Make a search of the internet search engines for St Aelred, you'll soon hit upon all sorts of strange things. You'd expect a 12th century English monk and saint, whose feast is today, to bring up some information about his life, his works, and maybe the odd image. But St Aelred seems to summon up all sorts of connections to websites of gay Christian groups, and of ethereal New Age spiritualities. The thing is, St Aelred wrote a work on friendship called "Spiritual Friendship". While you might expect the language he uses to be guarded - being a medieval monk - he is rather descriptive and intimate in his use of language. This has been taken by some people today, reading this in a contemporary context, to suggest that St Aelred conforms to the stereotypes of 'being gay'. Of course, St Aelred has no time for impurity of any sort, and is quite explicit about that. What is more interesting is that St Aelred is so into 'friendship' that he even suggests that 'God is love' can be understood as 'God is friendship'. I've never read the book myself, and shall certainly put it on my already overstretched reading list. Fr Richard asked that St Aelred be put in the list on the right as one of our patrons. He was previously in St Aelred's parish in Harrogate as Parish Priest, but it is also appropriate because of his interest in this favourite theme of ours of 'friendship'. It seems St Aelred would say that 'friendship with Christ' is expressed in our lives by 'spiritual friendship with others'. Anyway here's part of a review of St Aelred's book by Francis Phillips on the Coptic Orthodox website:

As a young man Aelred was very influenced by Cicero’s De amicitia and quotes from it admiringly in his own work; but he makes the distinction between Christian and pagan friendship very clear.

His book, divided in 3 parts, with a long gap during its composition, takes the form of a dialogue between himself and three monk-friends: at first Ivo, then much later,
Walter and Gratian. This device with its questions and responses enables the author to consider and refine what true spiritual friendship is about.

Daringly, he changes the statement ‘God is love’ to ‘God is friendship’, an ideal to which all human friendships should aspire. Those friendships which are self-serving or based on flattery or which do not seek the other’s greatest good, are rejected as false friendships, to be shunned or terminated. If friendships can be virtuous, for Aelred they can also be ‘vicious’. This is fighting talk, but he is nothing if not human, delighting in ‘companionship of soul’ – anam chara in Irish – and recognising that despite human defects, having once received a person in his friendship ‘I cannot do
otherwise than love him’. Only betrayal will ruin friendship - as Judas discovered.

But Aelred insists, following his divine Master, that love should remain even when the friendship is destroyed, for we must continue to will the ultimate good of our erstwhile friends, viz. their salvation. [...] Should we admonish our friends when we see them falling from grace? Quoting St Ambrose, the author believes ‘the wound inflicted by a friend is more tolerable than the kisses of flatterers’. Behind the spiritual friendship of two people there is always, for Aelred, ‘the sweetness of Christ Himself’ – the perfect friend who mediates the charm and consolation of our human companions.

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