On Spiritual Friendship

rievaulx-abbey-2My formal time at USH is coming to a close.  I am blessed to have spent time with so many interesting, bright yet burned men and women.  When one moves on, so to speak, there is a natural tendency towards memory, reflection, and appreciation for the encounters, engagements and experiences.  I wrap up all these “e’s” with hopes, dreams and a wish list three miles long.  Instead, I would like to share thoughts from Aelred of Rievaulx about spiritual friendship and what it might mean for the USH community.

Aelred of Rievaulx is a Cistercian saint and spiritual writer who specialized in writing about friendship as an image of the relationship between God and each person. He was brought up in Northumbria, which was steeped in the traditions of Celtic monasticism, and stories of holy men and women who kept alive the flame of faith brought by Aidan, the Irishman from Iona, in the seventh century.  It became clear at an early stage of his monastic life that Aelred had a gift for directing others, a capacity which was marked by compassion and gentleness. Bernard of Clairvaux officially recognized this by asking him to write a spiritual directory for newcomers to Cistercian life, The Mirror of Charity, which reflects Aelred’s spiritual acumen.  When he became abbot, the numbers at Rievaulx escalated to hundreds as he rarely turned young aspirants away.

Besides being a sensitive pastor, he was also a spiritual writer of depth. In his later years, with a long period of involvement in the pastoral care of his monks behind him, he wrote what would come to be acknowledged as a spiritual classic, On Spiritual Friendship.

Aelred speaks about spiritual friendship – a relationship which helps us grow in love: love of each other and love of God. In fact, for him friendship is a sacrament of God’s love. In an earlier book he notes that just as there is a continuous dialogue and interchange of love between the three persons of the Trinity, so human beings – the rational creatures made in the image and likeness of this Trinity of Persons – are called to relationships based on mutual dialogue, exchange, sharing and self-giving. According to Aelred, this is the theological foundation for all spiritual relationships.

Aelred’s weaves his contemporary understanding of friendship with the ancient tradition of Cicero, the theological depth of Augustine, and his own psychological insight into human nature.   He defines friendship as ‘agreement on all things sacred and profane, accompanied by good will and love,’ a definition he borrowed from Cicero. Ideally, friendship becomes a form of charity when it meets with a reciprocal response, so it is based on mutuality.

In Christian friendship each one shares, each listens, each gives and receives. Beyond his role as abbot, Aelred emphasizes the equality of those involved in the relationship and the responsibility of each for its depth, and so he refers to a friend as ‘a guardian of love’ or ‘a guardian of the spirit itself’. He says that the reciprocal response we encounter in these relationships is a small image of what we shall discover in God.  This is a relationship of two persons acknowledging the Christ in each other.  I might add to this the concept of companion.  The residents also need companions.  Bread fellows with whom they can break bread (panis) with, share in outings and conversation.  Herein lies another place where congregations could participate in community building.

Aelred speaks about the spiritual fruits of friendship and says that ‘those who have no friends are to be compared to beasts for they have no one with whom to rejoice, no one to whom they can unburden their hearts, or with whom to share their inspirations and illuminations.’ He calls a friend ‘another self to whom you can speak on equal terms, to whom you can confess your failings, to whom you can make known your progress [or lack of it!] without blushing, one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart.’

Needless to say, prayer is an intrinsic part of this relationship. Aelred says that when we pray to Christ for a friend, it is easy, and almost inevitable, that our affection will pass from one to the other, ‘so that we might begin by an awareness of our friend in prayer before the Lord, and gradually understand that when we are with Christ we are also with our friend’. We carry our friend with us in the deepest part of our being where God is found. For Aelred ‘friendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge God, so that human beings from the experience of human friendship become friends of God.

What does Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship has to do with the USH community?  I return to Bonhoeffer, who emphatically claims that if you are enamored with community, it will fail.  If you care about your fellow brethren, community will grow.  These past eight weeks the USH community has been exposed to exploring spiritual gifts, attending Sunday worship, Bible study, and creating mandalas and being.   My hope is that these spiritual practices may lead to spiritual friendships that will help each man or women to grow in their trust in God, themselves and each other.  Such friendships spawn community.

A final thought.  I cannot help but wonder what our world might look like if each congregation were to embrace, own, operate or extensively support a living community for disabled persons.  One where current parishioners were active in the conduct of the day-to-day life of such a community.  One close enough to the church so that living community members were able to be active participants in the life of the congregation. We have the resources with God’s help.  Do we have the will?


“Aelred of Rievaulx: on spiritual friendship.” CatholicIreland.net. November 30, 1999. http://www.catholicireland.net/aelred-of-rievaulx-on-spiritual-friendship/ (accessed August 31, 2015).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: HarperOne, 1954.

Rievaulx, Aelred of. Spiritual Friendship. Edited by arsha L. Dutton. Translated by SJ Lawrence C. Braceland. Collegeville,: Liturgical Press, 2010.

Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1992.


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