07 May 2020
During lockdown, I have been ‘meeting’ weekly on Zoom with the friends I made while training for ministry thirty years ago. We’re scattered around the UK and beyond, these days and see each other less often than I’d like. But these are friendships whose roots are so established that it’s easy, meeting after a long break, to pick up where we left off. I’ve rarely been more aware how much friends matter. For this reason the book to which my lockdown experience has led me back is Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship.
None of the majestic buildings of Rievaulx Abbey which shelter today in the valley of the river Rye in North Yorkshire were there when Aelred first visited. In 1134, when Aelred went to the newly founded Cistercian Abbey, the only buildings were of wood. Aelred had entered the service of King David of Scotland aged 14, and by the time quick witted youngster travelled on the King’s business to Yorkshire, he had risen to be the King’s Steward. But something about this loveliest of places poleaxed him. The following day, the King’s business concluded, Aelred presented himself at the Abbey door and asked to be admitted as a novice. He remained in the Order for the rest of his life.
Spiritual Friendship is a short and unsophisticated book, written a century before the rediscovery of Greek philosophy injected new philosophical life into the bloodstream of Medieval Catholicism. Aelred’s theme is friendship, a theme familiar to him from the few classical sources he did know, especially Cicero. But now friendship is refracted through the lens of his experience of living in a Christian community. For Aelred, friends are nor merely a natural good, though they are that too. Friends are seen by him as blessings given by God who help us, in turn, learn what it might mean to be friends with God. Jesus had taught his disciples to love not only their friends, but their enemies. Yet for Aelred friendship at its best takes us a step further, into a deeper, fuller form of love close to the perfect love of God:
In 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.
In the New Testament letters of John, Aelred read that ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’ (1 John 4:16). But now he wrote that ‘God is friendship, and those who abide in friendship abide in God, and God in them’.
Lockdown reminds us of the importance of friends in maintaining our sense of wellbeing and in keeping our feet on the ground. As a Christian, I am also relearning that the closest friends afford a glimpse of the friendship of God.