Spiritual Friendship: Aelred and Ivo’s Example

We all long for soul talk and spiritual friendship. To feel fully alive we need to participate in personal relationships that are based in empathy and draw us closer to Christ.

Empathy is listening to another’s emotions, especially their hurt and need, and communicating warm-hearted care. Infants and children need empathy like they need oxygen, food, and water. It’s the same for adults, though we may have learned to live on emotional rations! When empathy is combined with prayerfulness or is directed toward someone’s relationship with God then it transcends caring conversation to become soul talk. The listener becomes “Christ’s ambassador.”

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20)

Learning Spiritual Friendship to Develop Secure Attachment

The best way to learn how to participate in spiritual friendship is to practice it with someone who has experienced this form of compassionate soul talk. A start in this direction is to see it modeled. Aelred of Rievualx does this for us in his 12th Century classic devotional, Spiritual Friendship. 

His empathic attunement to his friend Ivo’s sadness and loneliness ministers divine healing to him. He notices Ivo’s feelings even before he speaks. He takes initiative to engage him in conversation, draw out his feelings, and listen with interest and warmth. He provides Ivo with a “secure attachment,” the safe and reliable source of nurture and strength that is at the foundation of healthy personalities and relationships. Additionally, he encourages and empowers Ivo by humbling himself to learn from his younger friend.

Aelred is an inspiration for spiritual directors, counselors, friends, and parents. Let’s listen in on the soul talk and spiritual friendship that goes on between Aelred and Ivo…

An Excerpt From Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx

Aelred: 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.

For just now, when I was sitting among the crowd of monks, they were all chattering on every side, and one was asking questions and another was arguing, and others were posing problems about the scriptures, about ethics, about virtues and vices. You alone were silent. Now and then you looked up as though you were ready to make a point for the rest of us, but just when the words seemed on the tip of your tongue, you looked down and kept silent. Occasionally you withdrew a short distance from our group and then returned, with a sad expression on your face. From all this I can only conclude that you have something on your mind, but you are afraid of the crowd, and desire privacy.

Ivo: Yes, that’s quite right, and I am very glad, since I know you care for me like a son. It must be the spirit of grace — no other! — that has revealed my state of mind to you. And I wish that your regard for me would allow me this one favor: as often as you visit your spiritual children here, let me have you all to myself just once, apart from the others, so I can pour forth the turmoil of my heart without fear.

Aelred: I’ll grant you that favor, and willingly! I am delighted to see that you are not given to arguing about empty and idle matters, but you are always engaged in some beneficial pursuit, something necessary to your spiritual development. So speak out without fear, and share all your cares and thoughts with a friend; so you may both learn and teach, give and receive, pour out your own soul but, at the same time, take in the soul of another.

Ivo: Indeed, I was prepared to learn, not to teach — not to give, but to receive, to pour out my own soul rather than to partake of yours. This is demanded by our respective ages; moreover my lack of learning compels it… I want you to teach me something about spiritual friendship…

Aelred: I marvel that you think I am worthy to answer such questions, especially since nearly everyone agrees that these matters have been dealt with more than adequately by ancient authorities who were extraordinarily learned. But I marvel most of all, since you have spent your youth pursuing matters of this sort, and you have read Cicero’s treatise On Friendship…

Ivo: I have been accustomed to take great delight in [Cicero’s work]. But 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…

I wish also that you would treat more fully how that same friendship which ought to hold among us is both formed in Christ and preserved according to Christ, and how friendship’s goal and usefulness are ultimately referred to Christ. For it is clear that Cicero was unaware of the excellence of true friendship, since he was unaware of Christ, who is friendship’s principle and goal.

Aelred: You have convinced me… I would rather not teach you about friendship but instead discuss this subject with you… You yourself have cleared the way for each of us… You should lead us…


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