One of my favorite places that I visited during my sabbatical was the ruins of the Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, England. Despite the fact that its once great halls now stand in fragments, there is a distinct beauty to the site. The choirs and the worship services have given way to the songs of birds and the whispered tones of visiting tourist, but there is no doubt that this is a place where you can still experience the awe and wonder of God.
Beth, Elizabeth and I visited the Abbey with William and Kathryn Dooley, members here at First Baptist and valued friends. As a gift for my 50th birthday last week William gave me a copy of Spiritual Friendship written by Aelred, perhaps the greatest abbot of Rievaulx. Aelred came with a wealth of experience and a heart for God when he took the role of novice at Rievaulx in 1142. A year later he was named abbot at a smaller related abbey and in 1147 return to serve as the abbot of the great abbey. He served as the leader of the Rievaulx spiritual community at the height of its scale and influence, growing the abbey to 150 monks and over 500 lay brothers. Aelred served as the abbot until his death in 1167. With all of this in mind, I came to the book I had been given with some sense of excitement because I longed to hear the heart of the one that had so shaped this vital religious community. To be honest, without my personal experience at Rievaulx Abbey, I am not sure I would have been drawn in to reading something from a Cistercian Catholic monk from the mid 1150s. But, in reading the text I got much more than I bargained for. Once I got past the rather extended and sometimes laborious introduction and got to Aelred’s actual text I found myself actively engaged and often challenged. The great monk’s view of what a spiritual friendship could, and should, look like raises the bar to the more casual approach to the relationship we often take toward those we call “friends”
Aelred contends; “In a friendship, then, we join honesty with kindness, truth with joy, sweetness with good will, and affection with kind action. All this begins with Christ, is advanced through Christ, and is perfected in Christ. “(75.20) His call is to friendships that are anchored in faith and shaped by the way Scripture teaches about the nature of friendship. He envisions a friendship that is sustaining. “Hence a friend clinging to a friend in the spirit of Christ becomes one hear and one soul with him. (75.21) He rejects with equal passion the idea of a friendship that is not Christ centered. For him, there are four defining qualities of a spiritual friendship; loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience.”(102.61) He goes on to elaborate on what he means by each of these qualities and ties each back to a passage or story from the breadth of Scripture. His unveiling of the nature of each of these qualities was compelling.
In an era where the word “friend” is tossed about so freely, this wise old monk calls us to a different model of friendship; one that invited us to draw people close and to walk together with Christ in a way that empowers and encourages each in the journey; one that is open-handed and open-hearted. It is remarkable to me that he speaks with the same quality of faith and wisdom now as he did over 900 years ago. I am glad for my time with this book and at the table with the old monk. I him and this book commend it to you.