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Category: Reading

A Poor Woman’s Meditation on the Desert

Photo Credit: Diego Jimenez on Unsplash

It is a fearsome thing to be dealt with by the heart of the Lord.

One recent weekend (I reserve weekends for guilt-free R&R), the Lord swung a punch to my psyche.

I profess no practical knowledge of the publishing industry. All I know is what I have read in books, online posts, and magazines. I do have experiential knowledge with blogging — my first weblog (an older, shortened term for web log) in the 90s was called My Hearthstone. My prodigal blog title returns home.

When I was writing my weblog – back before social media became popular – I was just proud that I was writing posts using HTML 3.2. I shared my views, one referring to Elton John song lyrics, another on Y2K. Technorati, a precursor to likes and follower counts, displayed popularity results for the world of weblogs.

Enter Twitter in 2006, the year I bought Twitter for Dummies and drove in.

Twitter, and a few others, paved the way for the interstate highway system of social media, bypassing American’s Main Street of weblogs. All the action entered the highway of social media, and our blogs became homing places. Our websites, our hearths, had been bypassed by social media companies that circumlocuted our blog posts with algorithms and AI. Wisdom congealed into building platforms first then writing books afterward.

A few weeks ago, the Lord, acting as a traffic cop, stopped me with the dastardly deed of AI and algorithms. In my human wisdom, I had gone looking for other writers to follow instead of working on my writing projects. I was looking for conversations, as limited as they are on social media, with other writers for some semblance of a give-and-take encouraging environment.

This behavior was outside the AI algorithms that Instagram had decided for me. I was locked out of my account immediately for suspicious activity and asked for a cell phone number to receive an SMS message containing a code to reenter. Which I don’t have.

Now mind you, I had 11 followers, mainly family and a few others who were interacting with me through my posts and comments. But they meant something to me. I had read and underlined a book about blogging on Instagram using captions. I shed a few tears.

He had been dealing with me for months to write first and demote social media platforms to a second-place priority. Telling me that my local isolation is a blessing in disguise so that I can concentrate on my writing. As Eudora Welty wrote in One Writer’s Beginnings, “My temperament and my instinct had told me alike that the author, who writes at his own emergency, remains and needs to remain at his private remove. I wished to be, not effaced, but invisible….”

Another lesson I believe the Lord wanted me to learn was to write steadily on a schedule and as Isak Dinesen said, “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”

But beyond the pain of losing what I was trying to build on a small level (for many followers would swamp me) was the pain of knowing I was not writing the way the Lord meant for me to write – a long Psalms 119 type poem and venturing to write longer, thoughtful blog posts. And I abandoned the joy of writing itself.

Writing is my God-ordained baptism. A dying to self in front of a blank page. I never would have thought the desire of my heart would be used this way.

I had a vision a few months ago: I was sitting down writing and had so much paper that it was floating all around me, no supply issues here. I know that meant my drought days of writer’s block would be over, but I can’t help but wonder if the vision did double duty and showed me how different the coming days would be regarding how we published our works. I don’t believe the paper in the vision meant an old-school return to book-only publishing, but I do think it might have signified a change.

On a national level, I see around the corner which we are turning now, as do many others, a total upheaval of our society. Social media and publishing companies are not exempt. Even though my Instagram account was taken out prematurely, I know it was a matter of time before censoring companies are taken down, regulated, or for all practical purposes boycotted.

I don’t want to see the Internet go down. I know that is primarily the only way my works are going to be read by those that God sends my way. And I know I am not alone in this. I want to see it cleansed.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing – variety is the spice of our literary lives. I chose Substack because of the melding of the social media aspect with the newsletter format (and because they don’t censor). My blog before h. renell’s Hearth was with WordPress because of the ability to have a community of followers. And my aforementioned Instagram account.

Many years ago I read Thomas Merton’s book Seven Storey Mountain. The Lord prompted me to revisit it. In the epilogue “Meditatio Pauperis In Solitudine.” Merton records the Lord’s message to him regarding his popular published poetry and his conflicting desire for solitude.

I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way you can not possibly understand, because I want it to be the quickest way…But you shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in my Mercy which has created you for this end…And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth.

Thomas Merton

Building a literary life with God, me, and the eyes that God sends my way has become the joyful practice of my weekdays, done in His way. Writers usually don’t see most of the hearts that they touch. For the work is ours and the reach and glory are His.

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Aelred, Walter, and Gratian Bid Adieu

“Book Three” is the last book of Spiritual Friendship. Aelred and Gratian are conversing while waiting for Walter to arrive. Gratian admits that he needs Walter there to help him see other points that he can not. And so begins the last book, and my last post of this series.

Last Conversation Together

Aelred starts by saying what unites friends. He notes many character traits that can end a friendship. Some can be overcome, but others can not. For the ones that can’t be overcome, he gives practical ideas to take to dissolve the friendship, so it does not devolve into further destruction. For those that can be saved, he gives steps for correction. Finally, Aelred describes one famous biblical friendship that shows how to be friends when they are of different stations in life – Jonathan and David.

Reason and sweetness, the word that Aelred uses for affection, have to be united so the love between friends is pure. Or in modern vernacular, the head and heart have to be united for love to flourish in a friendship. Reason sometimes is needed to lovingly admonish a friend when needed.

Once a friendship starts, then it needs to be tested, acceptance is granted if the tests are passed, and finally, there is “perfect harmony in matters human and divine with charity and benevolence.” At the foundation of the friendship is God, who is according to Ephesians 2:14 (NKJV) “…is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation.”

Aelred mentions a few categories, grouped by being salvageable or not, of vices anathema to friendship ranging in severity. The ones that are not salvageable, he teaches, need to be slowly unwound, so as not to cause any more destruction. The brotherly love should always be preserved with the other party. Aelred notes some sins against friendships can be overcome, providing they are not dishonorable, violate a confidence, or destroy virtue.

If the offense is public, it warrants an immediate end. He defines public as

  • against one’s church leadership (this book’s setting is a monastery)
  • against one’s country
  • against one’s family or friends.

He talks about the friendship between David and Jonathan in one aspect: that they were of different social classes. David tended the sheep in his family and Jonathan was the son of a king. Inside the friendship itself, Aelred teaches that the friends are equal in the sight of God, and should within the friendship conduct themselves this way. Galatians 3:28 (ESV) states “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.One should humble themselves and allow the anointed one to rise when necessary as Jonathan did by recognizing David as king and not his father.

Ending Thoughts

Spiritual Friendship is a timeless classic, short, and easy to understand. Buy or borrow a copy and read the points that I left out. Godly friendships will be needed in the days to come.

I made a personal vow to make my best friend that I lost last Good Friday famous. I hope in Heaven he is reading and smiling over my words, for he loved me despite myself.

Post 1 – Introduction to Aelred’s Spiritual FriendshipPost 2 – Aelred Writes What He Can’t Read
Post 3 – Add Gratian’s and Walter’s Banter

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Add Gratian’s and Walter’s Banter

Aelred and Walter Begin

Just as with Ivo in Book One, Aelred, while holding a conversation with a group of monks, notices Walter is alone and need to talk privately. Ivo has gone to be with the Lord. Book Two introduces Walter and later Gratian. Giving homage to the fruit of their friendship beyond the grave, Aelred feels Ivo’s comforting presence in Walter’s and his midst.

Walter asks Aelred for his Spiritual Friendship notes on Book One. Aelred is a prolific writer and is loathe to share anything before he has a chance to edit notes. However, he does reluctantly, asking Walter not to make it public until it is edited. How many writers out there can relate?

In contrast to Aelred referring to spiritual friendship as sweetness, he calls someone not having this kind of friend a beast. They have no one to rejoice, sorrow, and lift up (Ecclesiastes 4:10). He also has no problem calling some in worldly friendships insane and “friendship’s poison.” He calls evil friendships non-existent because evil and friendship do not co-exist.

In this age of health issues, isolation, and disputes many may be friendless in some form. Lest you may think “Am I a beast?” John 15:15 Jesus counters with “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

For the ones who do have friendships, Aelred teaches Walter the perks of spiritual friendship.

  • You can tell your friend about your spiritual progress without fear of boasting because they know your heart. Aelred uses the term “unblushingly” which suggests a sense of humility.
  • You can tell your friend secrets, knowing they will not be repeated.
  • You can tell your friend anything without dread of the response when corrected.

Gratian Joins In

At this point, Gratian joins the conversation. The sarcastic banter between Walter and Gratian adds some comic relief to the seriousness of the subject. Walter is the antagonist to Gratian’s breezy style: Walter fears that Gratian does not take friendship seriously enough.

Despite this, they manage to focus on the lessons that Aelred has yet to teach them. Gratian calls their conversation a “spiritual banquet,” which brings to my mind Psalms 23:5a “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” In Book One, Aelred says that spiritual friendships were formed out of the fallen world caused by Adam and Eve.

How far should you go for a friend? Aelred answers with John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He addresses Adam’s sin with Eve, saying Adam should have told Eve she was presuming and told her no, instead of complying with her request. In Adam sparing Eve, he dishonored both himself and Eve and God’s imprint on humanity.

Walter states it is shameful to leave someone on their deathbed. Many with healthcare issues today are dealing with this possibility in our complex and divisive culture. This is one of the hardest moments in our modern history, if ever. Only God can give each person an individual answer.

All Three Wind It Up

Gratian brings their conversation to a close, praising Aelred for the summary so they could memorize what they had learned. Walter wants to return tomorrow, admonishing Gratian to be on time.


I need a break, just like Aelred did to attend to other matters, to work on my psalm. My fingers are curved around my pen to write a poem. I am a first write-on-paper person.

Post 1 – Introduction to Aelred’s Spiritual FriendshipPost 2 – Aelred Writes What He Can’t Read
Post 4 – Aelred, Walter, and Gratian Bid Adieu

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Aelred Writes What He Can’t Read

Prologue

Some writers, past or present, have not found the subject matter they wanted to read and decided to write what they could not find. Aelred had read Cicero’s On Friendship, but could not find anything on Christian friendship. So he decided to write it himself.

The book is sectioned into three parts: Book One covers the theology of spiritual friendship, as discussed between Ivo and himself. He also lists two more worldly friendship types. Book Two and Book Three is another conversation between Aelred, Walter, and Gratian discussing practical points on forming and maintaining friendships.

Book One

Aelred doesn’t just jump into this theology, he sets the stage with how this conversation should be conducted between both parties.

He notices Ivo is silent in a group of talking monks and surmises that Ivo wants to talk privately. He tells Ivo he likes the fact that he is not an idle-talking monk, speaking only what is “useful and necessary.” For this reason, Aelred trusts Ivo to speak freely, knowing that time will not be wasted (on what I would call frou-frou). Aelred tells Ivo, he will be treated as an equal partner in the conversation.

Laying the foundation for their conversation, they agree to use Cicero’s definition of friendship as a starting point. “Friendship is mutual harmony in affairs human and divine coupled with benevolence and charity.” Ivo asks what the two terms mean and Aelred replies that benevolence means affection of the heart and charity means carrying out in deed. In other words, one is a feeling and the other is an action.

Ivo can’t see how true friendship can be lived with those who live without Christ. Aelred says though Cicero’s definition is imperfect for all types of friendships, you can get some idea of the nature of friendship.

He tells Ivo that he won’t teach what he doesn’t know. Aelred then proceeds to explain that a friend is a “guardian of our mutual love or the guardian of my spirit to preserve all its secrets in faithful silence, as far as he can, cure and endure such defects as he may observe.” In other words, protect your friend’s privacy, speak the truth in love when needed and wanted, and have patience.

Aelred does refer to spiritual friendship as being a “sweetness.” This counters Ivo’s argument of even trying if, as Cicero states, friendship is rare. And regardless of the outcome of any friendship, knowledge is gained.

He does define two other types of non-spiritual friendship. Both can turn into spiritual friendship.

  1. Worldly – useful for getting money.
  2. Carnal – useful for getting passionate desires met.

Aelred also references Adam and Eve in friendship. “How beautiful it is that the second human being was taken from the side of the first. So that nature might teach that human beings are equal…neither superior nor inferior, a characteristic of true friendship.” From beauty to ugliness, the fall of Adam and Eve corrupted charity and friendship. Once this happened, friendship remained among whom he refers to good, according to natural law.

For his final question, Ivo wants to know if wisdom can be abused through pleasing others through it, being prideful with it, or selling it. Aelred answers these are vices, so they are not an aspect of wisdom, so no.

Some Thoughts

  • True friendship is a trinity – Christ in the middle of two bound together for eternity.
  • When Aelred tells Ivo he can’t teach what he doesn’t know, he is showing humility and honesty towards Ivo. Servant leadership. I had a boss once who epitomized a true leader. One thing she hated was the small talk before business meetings. This is where I learned the term frou-frou. Seriously, though, agreeing on the terms of conversation dispels confusion later and keeps it steered in the right direction.
  • Aelred’s definition of friendship as each other’s guardians makes me think of the protection of each other and God’s protection of us in Psalms 91.
  • In the days ahead, as society is rebuilt with a godly foundation, true friends will be role models.
  • I looked up natural law. Divine timing – the next day after I wrote this, I heard a radio interview mention natural law and our Founding Fathers. Worth looking up.

At the end of Book One, Ivo doesn’t want to wait for another conversation, but he does this side of heaven. He dies before Book Two is written. We will have the practical aspects taught to us through Aelred’s conservation with Walter and Gratian.

Post 1 – Aelred Writes What He Can’t ReadPost 3 – Add Gratian’s and Walter’s Banter
Post 4 – Aelred, Walter, and Gratian Bid Adieu

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Introduction to Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship

Welcome to my first of four or five post series on Spiritual Friendship, a book praising the wonders of Christian friendship. This post will give you a bit of theological, historical, and cultural background information of St. Aelred’s world.

Aelred’s Life

Aelred was born around 1110 A.D. in Northumbria to Eilaf, priest of St. Andrew’s at Hexham. During his father’s married life, Pope Gregory VII ordered the priesthood to become monks or leave the church. His father chose to leave which created financial hardship. But it did not seem to affect Aelred, at least based on his educational opportunities and rise within the ruling Scottish government.

He likely was educated in a cathedral school and later became a steward in King David I of Scotland’s court. He held this position for nine years. During this time he read Cicero’s On Friendship, which had a profound influence on his book, Spiritual Friendship.

After nine years of court life, he visited the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, where he asked and received permission to join. Aelred’s life was spent mainly in Rievaulx, but he spent a few years starting a new monastery at Revesby. He died at Rievaulx of ill health in 1167.

Since he prospered in his duties in King David’s court, his time there gave him the skills he needed to lead Rievaulx: it grew to 140 monks and 500 laymen. His unhappiness with superficial life in court was the goad that God used, I believe, to drive him to spiritual life. When he wrote Spiritual Friendship, he wanted to go beyond On Friendship, adding a Christian foundation.

Aelred’s Monastic Life

The Cisterns had their theology – they took the Benedictine’s Rules more stringently by following the rules and doing no more. Their world view was one of hierarchy starting with God at the top: learning to love Him through experience and metaphor. The monks read both the Psalms and spiritual books. They balanced work and prayer, refused elaborate church art, and practiced poverty. They also settled uninhabited European land to build the world for God to overcome man’s lawlessness.

He also viewed himself as equal to women, as seen through the eyes of God. I can’t help but wonder if St. Francis of Assissi, an after-his-time contemporary, had read or heard of Aelred, because of his lifelong friendship with St. Clare.

Aelred’s Reading and Writing Life

Around the 3rd century, the practice of Lectio Divina began. Readers read to apply what is read to their own lives. It usually applies to religious works, but can also apply to secular ones. (Reading poetry using Lectio Divina is explained in Sage Cohen’s Writing the Life Poetic.)

Aelred was a prolific reader. One of the books he read was Augustine’s Confessions.

He was also a prolific writer, writing histories, guides, and sermons along with his books. One book, The Mirror of Charity, was requested by St. Bernard, a fellow well-known Cistern. The book became the foundation for Spiritual Friendship.

In Spiritual Friendship, Aelred writes in the dialog format, teaching us through his conversation with younger monks. He teaches us the value of friends through the mediator of Jesus Christ:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,

Ephesians 2:14 NIV

Closing Thoughts

Though this was written by a monk roughly 1,000 years ago, the principles still apply to anyone. Knowing a smattering of the background enhances the understanding of Spiritual Friendship. However, I think we can all to some degree relate to his solitude due to our lockdowns.

Godly friendships prepare us for our time in heaven, where our bodies are transfigured for eternity. Where there is no giving in marriage, just friendships for eternity.

Friendships here on earth allow us to bear each other’s sorrows and celebrate each other’s joys. Over the years, I have made big mistakes and lost friends, but I have also been blessed with a few that have been “closer than brothers” (Proverbs 17:17). One waits for me Up There.


Post 2 – Aelred Writes What He Can’t ReadPost 3 – Add Gratian’s and Walter’s Banter
Post 4 – Aelred, Walter, and Gratian Bid Adieu

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