image: St Aelred (c) English Heritage
January 12th was the feast day of Saint Aelred who was especially known for being one of the most holy abbots of the abbey of one of England’s greatest monasteries, that of Rievaulx in North Yorkshire.
Aelred was born in Hexham in 1110. His family was well connected with the Scottish Royal Family. Aelred was taken into the Court of King David I were he became the Royal Steward. He also wrote the biography of King David. His future in the service of the State was assured.
However, God had other plans. About 1134 he responded to a ‘call’ he discerned to be from God and he entered the Abbey at Rievaux as a Cistercian monk. The Abbey itself was about 2 years old at the time, so with the early monks he grew into its spirituality as a house of prayer. He was eventually to become its Abbot.
He had been brought up to love learning and he put this to good use. He was a noted preacher and many of his sermons are still in print today. He also wrote some important books, including a work about living the monastic life, The Mirror of Charity; a book of Pastoral Prayers and, the book which is really his legacy, Spiritual Friendship.
In the writing of this, Aelred was much influenced by a classical thinker of pre-Christian times, Cicero. His greatest influence was Jesus himself who, as he prepared for his death by crucifixion, spoke intimately to his disciples and claiming them to be his friends.
Aelred saw that friendship with God was essential for our relationship with Him but it also had important lessons for us to learn in how we deal with and related to each other.
A Dominican Friar, Robert Gay, OP comments on this:
“True friends treat each other with a Christ-like gentleness and sympathy. They are constant in their love, frank, and congenial. When the friendship has these characteristics, it can be said to be a true friendship, a ‘spiritual friendship’, one which builds up both parties and helps them journey towards God.” (RG)
There are many kinds of friendship but working towards spiritual friendship involves us in a progress towards God which is two-fold. It is about our personal walk with God and it is about our walk together as a Christian community. We learn God’s friendship within our heart/soul and with our sharing the common life of Christ as worked out by and with others.
This brings me to something which has always intrigued me and on which Aelred has an opinion. He was a great preacher and one of the sermons, which survives, is based on the Gospel about Jesus visiting Mary and Martha. (Luke 10:38-42)
Many see this as a story of the Contemplative (Mary) and the Activist (Martha). We sense this by Jesus’ reaction when Martha complained about her sister, that he holds up Mary as the truly spiritual sister.
Many commentators on this passage point out the contrast between Martha’s distraction with many things and Mary’s single-minded devotion to God. They have drawn out from this passage the importance of keeping a spiritual dimension in our lives. There is a clear implication that distractions prevent us from the true purpose of loving God and of listening attentively to his Word as it is communicated to us in and through Jesus.
Aelred, in his sermon, seems, initially, to be taking up that view:
“Recognize the state of these two sisters, Martha and Mary. The one was busy, the other was at leisure. The one gave, the other asked. The one was anxious to serve, the other nourished her affections. She did not walk about or run hither and thither, was not concerned with the reception of guests, nor distracted by household worries, nor busy with answering cries of the poor. She just sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what he had to say.”
Aelred then said something different.
Both these women live in the house of your soul.
What I think he is saying here is that both Mary and Martha are needed.
They represent two aspects of what Jesus needs from us.
On the one hand He needs us to sit and listen to his words and be still.
On the other hand He needs us to serve him through practical deeds.
Aelred spells this out:
If Mary alone is in that house there would be no-one to feed the Lord. Therefore, Martha signifies that action by which we labour for Christ which is a call to ministry.
On the other hand, says Aelred, Mary signifies that rest by which we are freed from activity in order to delight in the sweetness of God through reading, prayer and contemplation.
We need both because, he says, if you neglect Martha, who will feed Jesus? If you neglect Mary, what does it matter that Jesus entered your house, when you taste nothing of his sweetness?
These sisters are not enemies. They complement each other and Jesus needed them both. Just as he needs them both at work in us .
Jesus needs us to be active in our service to others which is part of our mission to bring God’s love to those parts of his world where we have some influence. But he also needs us to be still so that he can whisper his gospel into our hearts and remind us why we are serving – but also, because he needs to tell us how much he loves and cares for us.
This activity and stillness before God is done in friendship. Jesus loved Mary because she was such a genuine contemplative but he also loved Martha because she found God among the pots and pans, as St Teresa of Avila would put it.
When their brother Lazarus died and Jesus was taking a while coming, it was Martha who had a deeply theological conversation with him about the Resurrection. She found her religious insights in the ordinariness of her work. Both of them are deep, loving friends of Jesus. As are we, individually and together.
Christians are often called disciples, followers, even apostles, but the title that is, to my mind, the best is ‘friends’ of Jesus. Jesus gave us this title in his final teaching to the chosen 12 after the Last Supper and which takes up Chapters 13 to 16 in St John’s Gospel and culminates in the great prayer of Christ which is chapter 17. In his farewell talk to his disciples he called them ‘friends’.
St Aelred of Rievaulx says that “Friendship is like a step to raise us to the love and knowledge of God. Friendship lies close to perfection”.
When Jesus told his disciples (and by extension, tells us) that he regarded them as his friends, he was opening up a new way of relating to God. That we can be friends with the Almighty, Immortal and Awesome God is saying something vitally important about how we should live our life as Christians. To see Jesus as our friend makes a big difference to how and why we do things to proclaim the Gospel to others. It changes our relationship with God in worship; it opens up more honest and real praying; it reveals the scriptures not simply as a story of how God deals with his people but how, from the beginning he has been conducting a love-affair with us.
As he did with Martha and Mary, and Aelred.
who endowed Aelred the abbot
with the gift of Christian friendship
and the wisdom to lead others in the way of holiness:
grant to your people that same spirit of mutual affection,
so that, in loving one another,
we may know the love of Christ
and rejoice in the eternal possession
of your supreme goodness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.