St Aelred of Rievaulx (1109-67) “The Mirror of Charity”

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

Also called Ailred of Rievaulx, and known as the “Bernard of the North,” Aelred was the Abbot of Rievalux, one of the earliest Cistercian foundations in England. He entered this monastery in 1133 and soon became the novice master and wrote his first treatise the “Mirror of Charity” in 1142/43, an important spiritual treatise summing up the basics of monastic spirituality, which remains popular even today. In 1147 he was elected Abbot of the monastery and during the twenty years he served as Abbot he wrote historical works, the lives of saints, sermons and treatises on various topics, one of the important being “Spiritual Friendship,” an imitation of Cicero’s De Amicitia, and is the fullest medieval discussion of the theme of friendship. His extensive spiritual writings show marked similarity of interest and attitude with those of St Bernard, and hence the title, “Bernard of the North.”

In “The Mirror of Charity” Aelred sees three ways of life: the basic order of nature, the order of necessity, and the monastic order. He says that the candidate to the monastic life must be fully cognizant of the first two so that he can embrace the third with true freedom. In the first place he removes all misunderstandings about the true purpose of the ascetic life and its practices and says that they are all well ordered to a true spiritual life. The vigils – the best corrective to a light and wandering temperament, daily manual labour, temperance in food and clothing, fasts – the best weapon to fight lust, silence – the sword against anger, recollection, patience, turning from the things of the world, and walking in the way of obedience. For Aelred, the inner attitude is the important thing. This is what gives the monastic observances their meaning and desirability. The observances are good and useful for those who want to be free in Christ’s yoke. The monastic observance is for a greater freedom to serve Christ and he shows how this freedom can be achieved.

Thoroughly based on Scripture, the Fathers and Scholastic philosophy, Aelred pays much attention to the psychological aspects of feelings and emotions, because he says that it is important for helping the novice distinguish between true charity and natural feelings. He wants to point to their true place in the spiritual life, the core of which is charity guided by faith. “The visitations of God’s grace that come to us in the form of feelings and emotions are for God to bestow when and where and to whom He wills. It is not for us to seek them, or even to ask for them, and if God should suddenly remove them from us, our wills must be in agreement with this. For the man who loves God is the man who bears patiently with all that God does to him and who is zealous in carrying out God’s precepts.”

He frankly lists the temptations in the life of novices and speaks of the importance of encouragement, rather than condemning them. It is not surprising to find that Aelred gives a relatively extensive teaching on friendship and takes a realistic view when he says that “friendship is the most dangerous of all our affections.” Related to the theme of friendship is the need of fraternal correction, considering not only the need of brothers to help each other but also the need sometimes for the brethren to correct the superior. Aelred does not forget that they will someday be responsible leaders in the community and deals with every aspect of life and says that “even the management of money comes within the scope of charity.” He is aware of the chasm that exists between idealism and reality and does not want to spiritualise everything in the monastery. He repeatedly points out monastic failings and says: “In fact it happens only too often that those most ill suited to govern are put in positions of power simply to keep them quiet, and to stop their getting completely out of hand, a lamentable state of affairs.” For him all is ordered to a contemplative union with God. This is the ultimate meaning, the perfect imaging or mirroring of charity, perfect unity of being and action in God.

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