Today is the day in our church calendar when we commemorate the life and ministry of Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx. At first glance, Aelred seems to be another in a long line of medieval monks, raised in tumultuous times, who grow into faithful leadership and died a “good death.” Such lives are certainly worth highlighting in the narrative arc of Christian history, and Aelred’s life included all that plus one very specific theological focus: friendship.
For twenty years, from 1147 to 1167, Aelred served as leader of the Abbey Rievaulx. Toward the end of his life, even as he was dying from kidney disease, the abbey had over 600 monks serving under his care. During his last years, Aelred wrote the work for which he is best known: Spiritual Friendship. His premise is that friendship is both a gift from God and a creation of human effort. Love is universal and divinely given; friendship is the manifestation of that love in real time, with real people.
Aelred writes, “There are four qualities which characterize a friend: Loyalty, right intention, discretion and patience. Right intention seeks for nothing other than God and natural good. Discretion brings understanding of what is done on a friend’s behalf, and ability to know when to correct faults. Patience enables one to be justly rebuked, or to bear adversity on another’s behalf. Loyalty guards and protects friendship, in good or bitter times.”
In other words, friends are people who want the best for one another, always. Friends care enough to tell (and hear) the truth in love—and to stick around as the ripple effect of that truth telling works its way through the relationship. This kind of authenticity is rare and precious. It should never be taken for granted. If we have someone like that in our life—a true friend—Aelred’s life and work reminds us to take some time to reach out and let that person know how much we cherish them.