It is because of the Lord’s lovingkindnesses that we are not consumed, Because His [tender] compassions never fail. Lamentations 3:22 AMP
When you think of poetry in the Bible, the Psalms usually come to mind. However, the book of Lamentations is a poetry of the psalms too — a poetry of grief, written by Jeremiah after Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 B.C.
Sometimes grief enters a national stage. Many poets over the centuries are known as national poets writing grief on a national scale. America’s poets from war-torn times include Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems and Philip Freneau’s Revolutionary poems.
Jeremiah, even in his lamentation, wrote a psalm of hope. Amidst all the doom and gloom, the poets also should be the counterweight of hope.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
With orchestrated divisions being perpetrated on all of us, friendship is a commodity more valuable than gold. And the divisions being perpetuated are on a micro, local level between friends and families too. Anyone who reads the news knows the specific ways we are being divided – I will not rehash that here.
So if you have managed to hang onto friends and familiy despite the differing opinions and actions of others, you are blessed indeed. Civility of conversation and brotherly love are required for the other person’s benefit.
I recently wrote about one of my best friend’s passing, but I didn’t explain why he was a best friend. He would listen to me, then give me his opinion. And I never once felt slighted. I knew he knew me well and spoke the truth as he saw it (and he did see it), keeping his love utmost in his words to me. He told me that my blog writing was mainly for my benefit (in an enriching way) when I would moan and groan about having low numbers of followers. But he read my posts, commented on one that touched him, and subscribed to my newsletter.
A few years ago, I read Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx, who lived during the 12th century. I marked it up as I read. Aelred wrote this book in a time when friendships were discouraged in the church. His views on friendship, and his education and ties to nobility before he became a monk, enabled his footprint in the church to flourish.
As well as work on my Psalm project, I am going to do a short series of blog posts on what I glean from rereading Spiritual Friendship. The book is sectioned into three books, and I will do one post after each book, plus some background information, and a summary post.
The passing of my friend is opening the possibility to pass on what I know about friendships that the Lord would be proud of. Friends are united through Him. Or put another way:
You should love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”.The second great commandment is this: “Love others in the same way you love yourself.” There are no commandments more important than these.
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