On Tuesday it was the day in which the church remembers St Aelred of Hexham. He was brought up to be a courtier but chose to become a monk. His intelligence and friendly disposition helped him to rise to the position of abbot, first at Revesby in Lincolnshire and then at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. Aelred was unusual in recommending that monks had special friends as well as having their relationship with God. He understood how important friendships are to human welfare. As a result of this Aelred is the Patron Saint of Friendship. I often say that friendship is our sacrament online so I suppose Aelred should have a special place in our hearts.
The readings at the 2pm service were Psalm 36:5-10, Philippians 2:1-4, John 15:9-17. My reflection follows:
Today we remember Aelred who was born in about 1109 in Hexham, Northumberland. His father, Eilaf, was a Saxon priest. Early in his life Aelred went to Scotland to be educated in the Scottish court alongside King David I’s son, Henry, to whom he was a companion and page. His great intellect was noted during this time. This education was designed to ensure that he became a noble and courtier. Aelred was a favourite of King David and after his education he became the king’s steward in 1130.
Aelred was known for his piety and wisdom and it’s thought that King David intended to make him a bishop eventually. Aelred had a gentle and friendly personality. The story is told of how he was accused by another courtier of doing many wrong things, in the hearing of the King. Aelred allowed his accuser to complete what he wanted to say and then thanked him for his charity in telling him where he was at fault. This humble acceptance of the list of accusations surprised the other courtier so much that he promptly asked for forgiveness for making the accusations.
Had Aelred stayed at court, a life of luxury and privilege awaited him. However, in 1133 he decided to become a monk and joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire which had been recently founded. Once again his gentle nature became apparent. He was given the role of master of novices and gave a high quality of pastoral care to those entering the monastery, dealing with them with great patience and kindness.
A daughter house of Rievaulx, Revesby, was founded by William, Earl of Lincoln on his estate in 1143 and Aelred was appointed as its first abbot, taking with him twelve monks from Rievaulx. However, in 1146 the abbot of Rievaulx died and Aelred was elected as the new abbot. He returned to Rievaulx in 1147 and remained there for the rest of his life.
Rievaulx was a community of over three hundred monks whom Aelred led with great strictness tempered with gentleness. He used to say to the monks: ‘My children, speak what ye will as long as there come not out of your mouth any base word, any evil against a brother, or any blasphemy against God.’
In addition to being the superior of Rievaulx, Aelred was also the head of the Cistercian order in England. He travelled all over England and Scotland in this capacity as well as to continental Europe to attend the general chapter of the Cistercians. He was an influential figure and persuaded King Henry II of England to meet Pope Alexander III and King Louis VII of France in Touci in 1162. In 1163 Aelred was in Westminster Abbey when Edward the Confessor’s bones were reinterred there.
In the last ten years of his life Aelred suffered from several illnesses including gall stones and gout. He was patient in his suffering and didn’t let this curtail his activities. He died on 12th January 1167 at Rievaulx and was greatly missed by his monks.
Aelred wrote extensively. His best known works are On Spiritual Friendship and The Mirror of Charity. He also wrote biographies of Edward the Confessor, St Ninian and St Cuthbert. He was known as a historian and put together a genealogy of the kings of England. Of his seven historical works, two were addressed to King Henry II, containing advice on being a good king. Many of his sermons still survive.
Aelred showed his deep love for Jesus as his friend as well as his Saviour in his writing. He was unusual among abbots in encouraging his monks to develop special friendships with one another in addition to their relationship with God. He had a great appreciation of how important friendship is for human beings. He saw that relationships with others teach us about the love of God and help us to move towards God. As a result of his stress on friendship, Aelred is the Patron Saint of Friendship.
Here is a brief extract from his writing on the subject:
‘What happiness, what security, what joy to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known progress you have made in the spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans! What, therefore, is more pleasant than to so unite to oneself the spirit of another and of two to form one, that no boasting is thereafter to be feared, no suspicion to be dreaded, no correction of one by another to cause pain, no praise on the part of one to bring a charge of adulation from the other.’
One of the features of our life here in SL is the friendships we develop. These are mostly connections we would have had no other way of making, with people who are remote from us geographically, maybe even half a world away, but feel as close as any relationship we have in RL, sometimes even more so. I know from conversations I have had with people, just how valuable these friendships are. There is a deep concern for one another, an assurance of prayer support, a listening ear that does not judge. I am sure that much of what St Aelred says in the quote I have just read rings true with many here on Epiphany Island. I know it resonates with me.
I have benefited from several close friendships here. Those friends have been with me in challenging times. They’ve also challenged me when I’ve needed it by asking questions which have caused me to think. I know I can share with them and it will go no further. I know their wisdom is available to me when I need it. I have been truly blessed by them all.
I hope and pray that we can befriend all who come here and in Jesus’ name help them to learn of God’s love for them through the relationships they form with us.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor