Monday, January 13, 2014

On Spiritual Friendship - according to St. Aelred

Yesterday was the memorial of St. Aelred, though I wasn't aware of any bloggers devoted to the saint posting on the medieval abbot of Rievaulx to commemorate him nor his spirituality on friendship.

I found a very good essay on the saint written by Patricia Carroll OCSO.  She concludes, sums up her reflections on the treatise with the following:

Finally Aelred admits that this spiritual friendship is something we will experience with only a few people, perhaps even only one, in this life. This would be reasonable enough as it would seem to make enormous demands on the persons involved, and there are relatively few who will be able or ready to allow us enter the inner sanctuary of their heart. In this sense, it is gift. But what we have experienced, by the grace of God, or can experience with a few people will in heaven be ‘outpoured on all and, by all, be outpoured upon God, and God shall be all in all.’ For since the Incarnation, all those who are living the Christ-life are no longer called servants but friends.
Aelred’s reflections and guidelines on spiritual friendship are more pertinent today than ever. At a time when human love in all its aspects has been trivialised and de-sacralised, when the pleasure principle is given priority and recreational sex is commonplace, he emphasises the demands that authentic love makes. Christian relationships are demanding and his criteria could be helpful for those responding to the call to Christian marriage, those engaged in relationships of spiritual accompaniment, those endeavouring to revitalise Christian community, as well as the monastics for whom Aelred wrote so beautifully. These are the kinds of relationships exemplified in the lives of saints such as Frances de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal, Clare and Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Incidentally, the gentle bishop of Geneva quotes Aelred in his own writings. Aelred’s treatise On Spiritual Friendship is a spiritual classic because it has something to say in every age. If we were looking for a patron saint of all those who endeavour to establish Christ-centred relationships, whether inside or outside of marriage, Aelred would surely be at the top of the list. - On Spiritual Friendship

I also found an in depth analysis for interpreting the counsel of St. Aelred in our day.  A couple of issues much debated today, popped out for me.

The Eastern monastic tradition warns of the possibility of platonic male-female relationship developing in sexually inappropriate ways under the guise of friendship. It also has strict codes against male-male attachments for similar concerns. Viewed thus, Aelred would have had reservations about deep male-female and male-male friendships.
Whilst mindful of the traps of eros (as a sexual problem), Aelred did not show that relational intimacy would inevitably become romantic/eros. Yes, in A Rule of Life for the Recluse, he warns sisters in a celibate lifestyle from forming deep emotional bonds with any man and away from friendly tenderness that would lead to open sexual release.97 The concern arises from his familiarity with promiscuous sexual relationships both in the courts and in the monastic communities, as well as the Eastern and Egyptian Christian monastic traditions (such as Anthony, Pachomus, Cassian, and the Desert Fathers), which warned against sensual love between older monks and younger monks, and/or with the opposite gender.
Cassian’s Conferences XVI contained specific warnings against lustful thoughts, subversive dreams, bodily vices, and nocturnal emissions; all of which would suggest the wisdom of keeping a distance from attractive relationships both outside and within the monastery, for both male-male, and male-female relationships.98 And since Benedict’s monastic rule in this respect was drawn from Cassian on rightly ordered love, and since the Cistercian Order, which Aelred has devoted himself, observes the Benedictine Rule, Aelred was clearly not naïve about the perils of sexual temptations. 
As spiritual intimacy represents the highest goal of Aelredian friendship, he would affirm relational intimacy in its most holy and mature manner, befitting of true friendship: that this love would not contain travesties of avarice and concupiscence: caritas has nothing to do with cupiditas.
While romance as we know it today would have been foreign to medieval platonic male-female friendship, there is at least a recognition of the potential perils of such friendship developing into a sexual promiscuity.
(Aelred) provide(s) guidelines on developing healthy relationships, such as loving each other’s soul as their own, with pure intention, and cardinal virtues, which include rejecting nothing expedient, accepting nothing unbecoming, and growing together in prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and always expressing their kindred-ness in properly ordered love. Chastity and wisdom, towards God and each other, then represents the two roots to this truly healthy platonic bond. - Friendship: Interpreting Aelredian Love for Today

Many today erroneously claim that St. Aelred was gay - as the scholarship noted above suggests, St. Aelred would have had profound reservations over inordinate same sex friendships.  That is not to say his teaching can not be applied to same sex friendship as a means of understanding what the Catechism refers to as 'disinterested friendship'.  Friendship, good same sex friendship is a necessary component to a healthy celibate life.

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‘The wound inflicted by a friend is more tolerable than the kisses of flatterers’... S. Ambrose

1 comment:

  1. Terry, I'm very thankful for this article.

    I once had a spiritual friendship, probably going on 10 years now. We met on the internet and we very firey Catholics defending the faith on a forum. I was married and he was 10 years younger than me and we both wanted to be saints. There was an immediate kinship -- I felt he was my brother. I don't know what his perspective was -- and I think out of propriety, he would never tell me (I think it was the same) -- but there was an eagerness to pursue God in everything, everywhere. Over the years, we kept in touch, like once a year, every two years .. and now I've moved on to become a Secular Carmelite (continuing to be a Mom and Wife), he, a Dominican in Ireland. We have never once met.

    It's been 2 years since we emailed and I won't know if this spiritual relationship exits anymore beyond the heart and God's sight, which is fine with me. I trust God implicitly more than anyone or anyone else -- His Will be done.

    But, regarding your article -- I think I was in the right place at the right time. Our reaching for God was seemingly shared, but not everything. It seemed everything was, because God is everything. Everything else seemed miniscule and mangeable with this little friendship.. and we had our boundaries. I never spoke ill of my marriage or dear husband, and he never pried beyond what a lady would want to share. It was driven by what we were trying to overcome at the time -- namely, reconciling what we see going on in the church (has been for years). Once we overcame those questions, everything fell into place and now we've moved on.

    I oftened described as a holy friendship. My husband talked to him, too. My friend had great respect for my husband. God bless him.

    It was nice.

    The reason I'm responding to your post is because -- well, no one responded, I thought it'd be nice to -- and because when I read this, I feel called to share this with my husband. I want a spiritual friendship with him.

    As spouses, I think we have the propensity to be concerned with "me" and "mine." It's normal, even in good and holy marriages. That's why we have a lifetime to help each other!

    But thank you. :)


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