Saint Aelred, whose feast we keep today, was born in 1109 in Northumbria, England, and became a Cistercian Monk in 1133.
In August of 1991 members of the North American Congregation of the SSJE made a three week visit to the U.K. to places significant in the life of our Society. After a week of retreat on Iona we made a short visit to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey before going on to Durham Cathedral. Traveling east through the outskirts of Edinburgh we proceeded westward across England following the course of Hadrian’s Wall. At a point where we could just see York Minster at a distance, shrouded with scaffolding, we turned north onto a smaller road through wooded hills heading for Rievaulx. When we descended into the valley we came to the ruins of the abbey, high walls and no roof. It was hard to imagine what the Abbey Church must have looked like with windows and a roof. Nevertheless, it was thrilling to see the beautiful valley where Aelred had lived and prayed. After our visit to Durham we went on to other significant places before returning to Oxford and then the USA.
As a boy Aelred attended school in Durham and then was sent to serve in the court of King David of Scotland for an education in upper class life. In time he became dissatisfied. While he was on a journey to Yorkshire in 1133 he visited the Cistercian Abbey at Rievaulx and there became a monk. Later he became novice master of that abbey, and in 1147 he became its Abbot.
As a monk he became a major figure in the English Church. In 1142 he was sent to Rome on an important mission. There he met another Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux, who was impressed by his learning and urged him to write about friendship in the monastic life. In the course of his life as a monk Aelred wrote two treatises on that subject; The Mirror of Charity, and Spiritual Friendship. We can see the importance of those two works when we consider the contrast between the strict demeanor found in most monastic orders of that day, and that of St. Aelred, who permitted holding hands and showing other signs of affection between his monks.
The inclusion of a chapter on The Graces of Friendship in Our own SSJE Rule of Life in 1997 shows how we have come to recognize the importance of that same spirit taught by St. Aelred.
Give thanks for the life of St. Aelred and the teaching that he and others like him have left us on the value of loving friendships that lead us to become friends of God.