Aelred of Rievaulx: Spiritual Friendship

This sample reading log on Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx is like the ones that participants complete in our Soul Shepherding TLC program. (A reading log is a simple and helpful tool for studying a book and recording your favorite quotes.)

TLC stands for “To Love Christ” and is a two-year certificate training that Kristi and I lead for pastors and ministry leaders/caregivers in “Spiritual Formation and Soul Care Ministry” (Christ-centered spirituality and psychology). We go on retreat together twice per year for five days of conversational learning, solitude and silence with Jesus, spiritual formation experiences, hiking or relaxing, and spiritual direction/counseling (individual and group).

One inspiration for TLC, and where we learned the discipline of doing reading logs, is the certificate training in “Spiritual Direction, Formation, and Leadership” that Kristi and I completed with The Leadership Institute in 2007. Here is my reading log from Aelred of Rievaulx’s classic devotional book on Spiritual Friendship:

Author’s Background

As a Cistercian monk in the middle ages, Aelred of Rievaulx’s (1110-1167) life was likely filled with physical work and contemplative prayer. But in between his intense labors and solitary prayers he delighted in spiritual conversations with friends, which continued when he served as abbot (spiritual father) in his order and coped with illness. At a time when friendship was viewed with caution in the church Aelred gave his heart to his friends and found Christ. He wrote Spiritual Friendship in about 1157.

Author’s Thesis

Using a record of some conversations he had with friends, Aelred of Rievaulx wrote about spiritual friendship as a special relationship that is both an expression of God’s love and a path to knowing God’s love.

Why I Chose this Book

I chose to read Aelred of Rievaulx’s ancient book because it was recommended to me by a friend, Alan Fadling, who is the Executive Director of The Leadership Institute. I was particularly drawn to it because it’s an ancient work on spiritual friendship and was written as a series of conversations that he had with his friends.

Best Quotes

  • “Here we are, you and I, and I hope that Christ makes a third with us.  No one can interrupt us now, no one can spoil our friendly conversation; no one’s voice or noise will break in upon this pleasant solitude of ours.  So come now, dearest friend, reveal your heart and speak your mind.  You have a friendly audience; say whatever you wish.  And let us not be ungrateful for this time or for our opportunity and leisure” (p. 29).
  • “From the time when I began to recognize the sweetness of the holy scriptures and the honey-sweet name of Christ claimed my affection for itself, whatever lacked the salt of heavenly literature and the seasoning of that most pleasant name could not be tasty or attractive to me, no matter how cleverly argued what I read or heard seemed to me” (p. 30).
  • “Christ is friendship’s principle and goal” (p. 31).
  • “My friend must be the guardian of our mutual love, or even of my very soul, so that he will preserve in faithful silence all its secrets, and whatever he sees in it that is flawed he will correct or endure with all his strength. When I rejoice, he will rejoice; when I grieve, he will grieve with me” (p. 32).
  • “It is the mark of a virtuous mind always to meditate upon lofty and difficult things, so that it either attains or more clearly understands and recognizes that which it desires” (p. 33).
  • “You should separate that friendship which is spiritual from the many other kinds of friendship.  Spiritual friendship is to some extent involved with and obscured by other kinds of friendships, which can hinder those who desire spiritual friendship” (p. 35).
  • “He who does not love his own soul will in no way be capable of loving the soul of another” (p. 35).
  • “‘He who abides in’ friendship ‘abides in God, and God in him’” (1 John 4:16 paraphrase, p. 41).
  • “Perhaps our conversation here will be like spiritual food or drink for you” (p. 42).
  • “Friendship is a path that leads very close to the perfection which consists of the enjoyment and knowledge of God” (p. 45).
  • “Often affection precedes friendship, but it ought never to be followed unless it is led by reason, moderated by a sense of honor, and ruled by justice” (p. 53).
  • “The beginning of spiritual friendship should be marked, first, by purity of intent, the advice of reason, and the guide of temperance” (p. 53).
  • “He who seeks from friendship some profit other than friendship itself has not yet learned what friendship is. Friendship will be full of riches for those who cherish it when it is completely centered upon God; for those whom friendship joins together, it immerses in the contemplation of God” (p. 54).
  • When “reason is joined to affection… that love is pure because it comes from reason, and agreeable because it comes from affection” (p. 58).
  • “For a friend is the sharer of your soul, to your friend’s spirit you join and attach your own, and you so mingle the two that you would like for your two spirits to become one” (quoting Ambrose, p. 58).
  • Rid self of suspicions by contemplating love (p. 64).
  • “A foundation must be laid for friendship, namely the love of God.  To this love of God everything that has to do with friendship must be compared; one must examine whether the concerns of a friendship are in keeping with the love of God, or opposed to it” (p. 68).
  • “Test [a friend’s] intent, to ensure that he is looking for nothing from the friendship except God and that natural good that comes from your mutual friendship” (p. 70).
  • “In friendship there is nothing more outstanding than faithfulness, which seems to be both the nurse and guardian of friendship” (p. 70).
  • “Without friends there is absolutely no pleasure in life” (p. 73).
  • “God himself is at work pouring forth such great friendship and love between himself and his creation” (p. 74).
  • “One can make a rather easy transition from human friendships to friendship with God himself” (p. 77).
  • “We must avoid suspicion before all else – it is poison to a friendship – so that we never harbor evil thoughts about a friend, nor give credence to or go along with someone who makes slanderous remarks about our friend” (p. 77).
  • “A faithful friend is the medicine of life, and the grace of immortality” (quoting Ambrose, p. 79).
  • “The wise man (Seneca) says that ‘men would lead the happiest life if they would get rid of these two words, “my” and “your”’” (p. 81).

Critique of One Idea

In these conversations that Aelred had with his friends we only get a few examples of personal self-disclosure. Most of the discussion is teaching oriented. Nonetheless, vulnerability is expressed in his affectionate longings for intimacy with God and his friends and this adds greatly to the many wonderful insights.

Personal Application

The power of Aelred of Rievaulx’s book on Spiritual Friendship is the way it reflects his simple devotion to Christ in his friendships. The way he talks about friendship and his love for Christ is most inspiring! He speaks about a type of conversation that furthers intimacy with Christ. Most Christ-followers have participated in small groups and are familiar with Bible study discussions or support group sharing, but these types of conversations, helpful as they may be, are not as likely to be spiritual conversations that develop our intimacy with Jesus and our personal formation as his apprentices in everyday life.

I want to grow in my own practice of spiritual friendship with Kristi and my friends. Also I want to continue to teach to pastors and ministry leaders how to make spiritual conversation central to their way of relating so that they are formed more into the image of Jesus Christ. Reading the Classics of Devotion to Christ and sharing my insights and experiences with others helps me to do this. Also, in my everyday interactions with people I pray for God to help me to “elevate conversations for his heavenly purposes.”


Further Reading

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