St Aelred of Rievaulx: What Is Friendship?

Feast of St Dominica the Righteous

Aelred_Square_2.jpegAELRED: You and I are here, and I hope that Christ is between us as a third. Now no one else is present to disturb the peace or to interrupt our friendly conversation. No voice, no noise invades our pleasant retreat. Yes, most beloved, open your heart now and pour whatever you please into the ears of a friend. Gratefully let us welcome the place, the time, and the leisure.

I am delighted to see that you are not prone to empty and idle talk, that you always introduce something useful and necessary for your progress. Speak then without anxiety. Share with a friend all your thoughts and cares, that you may have something either to learn or to teach, to give and to receive, to pour out and to drink in.

IVO: I am ready not to teach but to learn, not to give but to receive, not to pour out but to drink in, as my youth prescribes, my inexperience demands, and my monastic profession counsels. But lest on these distinctions I should unwisely waste the time needed for other matters, would you teach me something about spiritual friendship? What is it? What value does it offer? What is its beginning and its end? Can friendship exist among all persons? If not among all, then among whom? How can it remain unbroken and so without any troubling disagreement reach a blessed end?

AELRED: I wonder why you think I should be asked these questions. Obviously all of them were treated more than adequately by the greatest teachers of old. I wonder why especially, when you have spent your boyhood on studies of this kind and have read Tullius Cicero’s volume On Friendship, where in an engaging style he fully treated everything that seems to relate to friendship and gave a sort of outline of some of its laws and precepts.

IVO: His volume is not too unknown to me, since at one time I took the greatest delight in it. But since the day that some drops of sweetness began to flow my way from the honeycombs of holy Scripture, and when the mellifluous name of Christ claimed my affection for itself, whatever I read or hear, however subtly argued, has neither flavor nor light without the salt of heavenly letters and the seasoning of that most sweet name.

Therefore I would like such propositions as are in harmony with reason, or others whose usefulness your explanations reveals, to be proved to me by the authority of Scripture. Similarly I want to be more fully taught about the right kind of friendship between us, which should begin in Christ, be maintained according to Christ, and have its end and value referred to Christ. It is obvious indeed that Cicero was ignorant of the virtue of true friendship, since he was completely ignorant of Christ, who is the beginning and end of friendship.

AELRED: I admit that you have convinced me up to this point, that as if not valuing my own ability on those questions, I will not so much teach you as confer with you. You yourself have disclosed the way for both of us, when at the very entrance to our inquiry you lit that brightest of lamps, which prevents us from straying and leads us to the fixed end of the question proposed.

What statement about friendship can be more sublime, more true, more valuable than this: it has been proved that friendship must begin in Christ, continue with Christ, and be perfected by Christ. 

Come, now: propose what in your opinion should guide and organize our talk.

IVO: I think we should first discuss what friendship is, lest we appear to be painting on a void, now knowing what should guide and organize our talk.


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AELRED: Is Cicero’s definition not an adequate beginning for you? “Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity” (Cicero, On Friendship, 6.20).

IVO: If his definition suffices for you, it’s good enough for me.

AELRED: Shall we grant, then, that those who share the same view on everything human and divine and have the same intentions, with good will and charity, have reached the perfection of friendship?

IVO: Why not? But I don’t see what that pagan wished to indicate by the words charity and good will.

AELRED: Perhaps by charity he meant attachment of the spirit but by good will the translation of the attachment into good works. For in everything human and divine, charity between two persons is dear to their spirits. That is, it ought to be a sweet and precious agreement. The practice of good works in exterior things also expresses pleasure and good will.

IVO: I admit that for me this definition would be satisfying enough, if I did not suspect that it suited not only pagans and Jews but also unjust Christians. I also admit my conviction that true friendship cannot exist between those who live without Christ.

AELRED: Later on it will become clear enough to us whether the definition fails to some extent either by defect or by excess and whether it should be rejected or accepted as the mean between extremes. From the definition itself, however, though you man find it less than perfect, grasp as well as you can the meaning of friendship.

IVO: I hope I’m not being a nuisance if I tell you that this definition is insufficient unless you explain the meaing of the word itself.

AELRED: I’ll humor you, but you must pardon my ignorance and not force me to teach what I do not know. I my opinion, from amor comes amicus and from amicus, amicitia. That is, from the word for love comes that for friend, and from friend, friendship (cf. Cicero, On Friendship, 8.26). Now love is an attachment of the rational soul. Through love, the soul seeks and yearns with longing to enjoy an object. Through love, the soul also enjoys that object with interior sweetness and embraces and cherishes it once it is acquired. I have explained the soul’s attachments and emotions as clearly and carefully as I could in a work you know well enough, The Mirror of Charity.

Furthermore, a friend is called the guardian of love, or, as some prefer, the “guardian of the soul” itself (cf. Isidore, Etymology, 10.4). Why? Because it is proper for my friend to be the guardian of mutual love or of my very soul, that he may in loyal silence protect all the secrets of my spirit and may bear and endure according to his ability anything wicked he sees in my soul. For the friend will rejoice with my soul rejoicing, grieve with it grieving, and feel that everything that belongs to a friend belongs to himself.

Friendship is that virtue, therefore, through which by a covenant of sweetest love our very spirits are united, and “from many are made one” (Cicero, On Friendship, 25.92). Hence even the philosophers of this world placed friendship not among the accidents of mortal life but among the virtues that are eternal. Solomon seems to agree with them in this verse from Proverbs: “a friend loves always” (Prov. 17:17). So he obviously declares that friendship is eternal if it is true, but if it ceases to exist, then although it seemed to exist, it was not true friendship.

~St Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship

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