January 12, 2006
by Fr. Aelred Niespolo, O.S.B.
(Eph: 3:14-19, John: 15:9-17)
ST. AELRED writes in the prologue to his best known work, the Treatise on Spiritual Friendship, that: “When I was still just a lad at school, and the charm of my companions pleased me very much, I gave my whole soul to affection and devoted myself to love amid the ways and vices with which that age is wont to be threatened, so that nothing seemed to me more sweet, nothing more agreeable, nothing more practical, than to love.” He also writes in a dialogue with his dear friend Ivo that immediately follows that prologue: “Here we are then, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst.”
At the core of both statements is a profound sense of what he experienced as delightful in being a human person, and also of the deeper sense that an incarnate Christ is With Us, at the core of our humanity and central to the delight we take in others. Initially this dual perception of need and desire seemed to him a tension, a struggle, but he was ultimately able to use it as a basis for his theology and spirituality. His teachings are a genuine expression of his own personal experience. While this is not unique in earlier spiritual literature as a methodology of finding God, (St. Augustine’s Confessions were an important model for him) he extensively employed the dynamics of personal friendship and love within own life in order to distil a theology of friendship, as well as love, that spoke deeply to those of his own 12th Century England, a time that was changing its perception of what it meant to be a human being. And once Aelred was rediscovered after years of neglect, or even suspicion, he again speaks deeply to our own day and age.
In today’s first reading St, Paul prays that our hidden, interior, our inner, selves be strengthened by the Spirit and that it is through this strengthening that Christ lives in our hearts. In today’s gospel, Jesus exhorts his disciples: that as the Father loves him, so does he love them; but in order to remain in this love, that he may continually dwell with them, be present to them, the disciples, in other words we ourselves, must love one another as he himself loves. And if we do this we are no longer servants, we are his friends. The act of loving each other brings us into friendship with Christ, making Christ present in our lives. Both readings are essential to understanding how St. Aelred perceived his own struggles as a sometimes agonized seeker who needs to love and to be loved, and as a Cistercian monk and an Abbot who needs to love and to be loved.
We all know that love causes great joy, yet often enough great confusion, often enough great pain, even great indiscretions. But it also gives us a sense of vital life. What I think that sense of life is, is a freeing perception into who we truly are in our “hidden” selves, our interior selves. Aelred wrote: “How much does a man know if he does not know himself.” And the primary way he grew in self-knowledge was through his personal loves and friendships, and the corresponding desire for Christ they incarnate between friends. The impetus behind his own monastic conversion and spirituality is that drive to know oneself, who one really is, by listening to how our hearts love. The monastic life became for him a true interior journey into self-discovery—but not a discovery that was self-centered. It became that most archetypical of journeys, the monastic quest to find the hidden self created by God, the self that calls out to God, even when it does not know His name.
St. Aelred recognized that the primary person we hide from in life is ourselves; that we have forgotten, lost, the sense of who we are in forging our own protective egos. He knew that the primary monastic goal is to know and love Christ, and that the best way he had discovered through his own experiences to achieve this love and knowledge, lie in the rediscovery of who we truly are. He discusses in his work how one moves from the personally defined need to love and to be loved, that which is ultimately both universal and unique to each of us, which defines who we are, to ever closer union with God. He intertwines, as does Jesus in today’s gospel, self-knowledge with the two great commandments of love that are enjoined upon us as Christians. Any real love is a fundamental inclination towards God. But Aelred knew that the problem lay in learning to love properly, because there is always the danger of thinking we love someone, when we really only love the image we have built of ourselves.
He distinguishes spiritual friendship from the Christian duty to love all one’s neighbours, even one’s enemies, because loving all does not mean enjoying all. And there are those one has to will to love. As we all know, from our families, and our communities. Aelred understood the enjoyment in true friendship as a foretaste of heaven. Friendship springs directly from a God who created humanity; who created them to share his love with each other. Love one another as I have loved you. The human heart has impressed upon it the desire for friendship. In a very real way this desire is another aspect of the God of Genesis decreeing that it is not good for man to be alone. True spiritual friendship, friendship that incarnates Christ among us, perfects love. It perfects creation.
St. Aelred of Rievaulx asks us to carry on the ever-dynamic mission of the incarnation. The creator God of Genesis is John’s God who is love. And Aelred takes a further significant step when he moves from affirming that God is love to his most famous dictum: “God is friendship.” For in all true spiritual friendship there is a mutuality that allows one to love others, but as importantly to know that one is loved by others. Aelred discovered in his own life with and in Christ that to love and to be loved is the way of defining who we truly are.