Aelred was a Cistercian monk who lived in Yorkshire, England, traveled to Rome, studied with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and wrote a lovely book called Spiritual Friendship. Aelred highlights the Gospel’s fundamental message, that God is Love (capitalized to indicate that this limitless Love of God is the ultimate source of all instances of everyday love).

Aelred intended to live a life patterned after Jesus who told his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Aelred’s emphasis on interpersonal love and friendship manifests the spiritual awareness of the Second Person of the Trinity. For Aelred, the I-Thou of his relationship to God becomes fully integrated with the I-thou of his relationships in community.

In general, the Cistercian order emphasized direct experience rather than systematic theology. These were brothers, living in community, and drawn to identify with the life of Jesus personally and in their brotherly relationships. Rievaulx wrote two books about this spiritual quest in community: Spiritual Friendship and Mirror of Charity.

In Spiritual Friendship he shares this glimpse of how he views his fellow monks:

In the multitude of the brethren I found no one I did not love and by whom, I was sure, I was not also loved. I was filled with such great love that it surpassed all the delights of this world.1

For Aelred, the core of the human person is the image and likeness of God (the imago et similitudo Dei) in which we are created. Like all Christian writers before him, Aelred says that this inner imago can never be destroyed or lost. The image of God within us will never disappear. But it’s also true that the likeness (Latin: similitudo) to God is damaged by sin. Christ makes possible a restoration of the likeness because Jesus Christ appeared on earth to gift everyone with an expanded vision of the imago Dei–the imago trinitatis. And, central to this divine presence within us is the ambiance of eternal Love, the dance of Love (perichoresis) that is the Trinity.

Aelred’s mentor, St. Bernard (1090-1153) had written extensively on the qualities of Love and the stages of love experienced by one who seeks God’s Love. Aelred carries on this emphasis on love by noticing different qualities of love–affectio, amor, and caritas. Affectio is the precursor to amor, to interpersonal love. It is “a spontaneous and sweet inclination of the intellectual soul toward someone,”2 and it can be carnal, natural or spiritual, in ascending orders of consciousness. Reading Aelred awakens psychological issues: How we love someone and how we love God can be more or less integrated with reason (ratio), and our expressions of love can be more or less ego-driven–damaging or liberating. Unfortunately, Aelred lived in a pre-modern, pre-psychological world, so he didn’t explore these subtleties. Still, we can learn from him, and refresh his worldview with what we have learned from love and friendship.

In his Spiritual Friendship Aelred explores that moment when these faculties of amor and ratio are attuned; then, one has achieved amor perfectus or amor ordinatus, perfect and well-ordered love. Aelred’s Mirror of Charity connects the amor ordinatus of the I-thou with the amor ordinates of the I-Thou. In the spiritual logic of contemplative Christians like Aelred, this connection is inevitable because the core of one’s True Self is the imago trinitatis where the “I” of all one’s relationships are born and borne. All of a person’s everyday relationships are open to the dynamism of inter-Personal Love that permeates the Trinity (where each Person is and is not the other). Theologian Bernard McGinn sees in Aelred an effort to open up the I-thou and I-Thou fields of relationship into the perichoresis of love that God is, an all-inclusive arena of “I-thouing” in every direction. For Aelread, God’s Presence is the dynamic, infinitely resilient infrastructure of the Self, one that unites all opposites–an ultimate simplicity of being that includes and integrates everyday multiplicity. In Aelred’s cosmological view, divine love, caritas, is the connective tissue of an amicitia (friendship) that moves deeply through all reality.

This ultimate friend-friendly Presence

contains, embraces and penetrates all things, joining the highest with the lowest, not by being poured into a place, or by being spread out through space, or by active moving about, but by the steady, incomprehensible, and permanent simplicity of its substantial presence.3

We come to a clear view and understanding of Christ when Christ is born in us. Then, Christ perceives Christ within us. Here, Aelred employs every metaphorical, allegorical and symbolic turn of language to help the reader imagine being there, at the literal place and with the people in every scripture story, while also understanding that every place and person stands for something beyond itself. By this practice of imaginatively accompanying Jesus in the flesh throughout his life, we share in Jesus’s experience, life and mission, so that we. . . .

might be born spiritually and, passing through the successive ages of the spiritual life, grow up and advance. Thus his bodily progress is our spiritual progress, and what we are told he did at each stage of his life is reproduced in us spiritually according to the various degrees of progress–as is experienced by those who advance in virtue.4

As a method of spiritual discipline, Aelred’s kataphatic (Greek: with images and thought) path is via the senses and imagination, but not as ends in themselves. All the stories and images from scripture are treated as icons, transparent to the Mystery that lies shimmering within each image.

Contemporary Christian theology names Aelred’s method of reading scripture as lectio divina (divine reading) of the story. In this contemplative way of reading, one lets go of previously gathered opinions about a passage and inwardly listens for a possible new message from the Divine. Aelred dives beneath the literal events in scripture stories, to seek the spiritual teaching at its core, as when he declares, “Care for the poor is exemplary, but when in the Presence of your holy Thou, you are invited to drop everything and to open your heart to the One who has created you in love; serve others, but always from this place in your heart.” Aelred concludes, “Break the alabaster of your heart and pour everything that you have of devotion, of love, of desire, of affection over the head of your Spouse, adoring the human in God and the God in the human.”5

For Aelred, Jesus is his “Spouse,” a sacred marriage between souls. By imagining oneself into the Biblical stories, Aelred assumes that the characters, especially Jesus, begin to take on an inner reality that is powerful in itself and also begins to color one’s actual relationships. In comparison to his fellow Cistercian, St. Bernard, Aelred does not try to create a sharp division between the love of God and the love of neighbor in sacred friendship. Our inner and affective I-Thou relationship with Jesus is meant to fire up our imaginations and intentions to go out and to love others in our ordinary I-thou life.

Like many Christian mystics, Aelred hears the Hebrew Song of Songs circulating in his heart when he suggests that our souls are the bride, and Christ is the Bridegroom. Like many medieval mystics,6 he is not particularly concerned about Jesus’s gender. Jesus or Christ may be conceived as our Mother who feeds us in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The sacred Second Person of the Trinity is a gender-free Thou who continually seeks to manifest His/Her Self in all our relationships. The spiritual fulcrum of Aelred’s spiritual discipline is essentially relational; as he writes in Spiritual Friendship, “Ecce ego et tu, et spero quod tertius inter nos Christus sit (“Here we are, you and I, and I hope that Christ may be the third between us”).7

1 Aelread, quoted in McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroad Press, 1994, p. 310.

2 Ibid., p. 311.

3 Ibid., p. 313.

4 From Aelred of Rievaulx treatise, Jesus at the Age of Twelve, edited by M. Basil Pennington, OCSO. Aelred of Rievaulx: Treatises I: Treatises and The Pastoral Prayer. Introduction by David Knowles. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1971/1982, p. 15.

5 Aelread, quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroad Press, 1994, p. 315. [made gender neutral by author of this book]

6 Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: U. of Cal. Press, 1984.

7 Aelred, quoted by Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroad Press, 1994. [pages scanned by Jonas,11-12-‘12] Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167, A.D.), p. 317