Aelred of Rievaulx – A Theologian of Love

Aelred of Rievaulx – A Theologian of Love

            In 1134, a reputable young man with a promising career at the court of David I, king of Scots, saddled his horse and started his journey to a remote abbey in a North Yorkshire valley. His name is Aelred. He never returned from his journey, and his decision to abandon everything to attain Christ is the reason why he is still known today.

Aelred the Nobleman

            Aelred was born at Hexham, Northumberland, in 1110. His father was a priest (priests could still marry at that time). After his studies, in which he excelled, sometimes after 1124 he obtained a place at the court of David I, king of Scots, and his wife Matilda as a companion to Matilda’s sons: Simon and Waldef, born from a previous marriage, and Henry, her only son with David. Aelred and Henry became especially close. Due to his diplomatic abilities, Aelred rose to the title of Master of the Household and was employed in several diplomatic missions.

            Sometimes between 1128 and 1131, Waldef left the court to become an Augustinian canon. He stayed in touch with Aelred, possibly highlighting some discontents already brewing in Aelred’s mind. Waldef mentioned the Cistercian Abbey at Rievaulx as an example of a community devoted to the love of God and others, and Aelred decided to travel there with a friend.

            Aelred was impressed with what he saw. Still, he left to return home, only to ask his companion to take him back to the abbey one more time. This time he never left, feeling he had found his true home.

            He later wrote, addressing God: “At last I began to surmise, as much as my inexperience allowed, or rather as much as you permitted, how much joy there is in your love, how much tranquility with that joy, and how much security with that tranquility. Someone who loves you makes no mistake in his choice, for nothing is better than you.”[1]

            If we detect a resemblance with Augustine’s Confessions, it is because that was one of Aelred’s favorite texts, and much of his first major work, The Mirror of Charity, is fashioned after that. Aelred was also greatly influenced by Cicero’s De Amicitia, which he viewed through the lens of Augustine’s writings.

Aelred the Monk

            Recognizing Aelred’s talents and experience, William, abbot of Rievaulx, sent him on several diplomatic missions as well, including one to Pope Innocent II in Rome. Later, Aelred was appointed novice master at Rievaulx (a pastor for prospective monks). His warm and compassionate spirit made him the perfect candidate for the task. In 1143, he was appointed first abbot of Revesby in Lincolnshire, where he stayed until 1147, when Maurice, the abbot who had succeeded William at Rievaulx, resigned, and Aelred was elected as his successor. Aelred kept this office for the next twenty years.

            News of Aelred’s loving and caring leadership spread throughout Europe, bringing many novices to the abbey, which doubled in size. He also became famous as a preacher and writer. The fact that we still have a large quantity of his writings, gathered from different abbeys, is a proof of how much they had spread and how carefully they had been preserved.

            The last ten years of Aelred’s life were difficult, as he suffered from arthritis, gout, kidney stones, and a chronic respiratory disease. He was so ill that in 1157 he had to be admitted to the infirmary at Rievaulx. From there, he moved to a nearby hut where, despite his continued sufferings, he kept receiving the numerous visitors who continued to flock by his side.

            By January 1167, knowing he was about to die, he asked for three books: his psalter, Augustine's Confessions, and the gospel of John. He died on 12 January 1167.

Aelred the Pastor and Friend

            Aelred took his pastoral duties seriously and developed his theology accordingly, in the imitation of Christ, who called his followers friends and gave his life for them. “I am entrusted with the care of my brother’s body and soul,” Aelred wrote, “for I do not love the whole man if I neglect anything belonging to either. If I see him suffering some distress, whether on account of the austerity of the good or of the work or of the vigils – if, I say, I see that he is tormented in body and tempted at heart – for it is extremely difficult for the mind not to be tempted when the flesh suffers grievously – if I see him in such affliction and, although provided with the goods of this world, I shut up my heart against him, how can it be said that God’s love dwells in me?”[2]

            Today, Aelred is mostly remembered for his emphasis on the value of friendship – probably because, in today’s world, friendship has lost some of its meaning. Just as Aristotle described three types of friendship (friendships of pleasure, of utility, and of virtue), Aelred distinguishes between carnal, worldly, and spiritual friendships. “The carnal is created by a conspiracy in vice, the worldly is enkindled by hope of gain, and the spiritual is cemented among the righteous by a likeness of lifestyles and interests.”[3]

            For Aelred, a spiritual friendship is selfless and focused on God. As such, friendship becomes both an expression of God’s love and a way to come to know that love.

Aelred the Theologian of Love

            But friendship is only one part of Aelred’s theology, that sees love as the primary force and motivation in the history of redemption and the crowning virtue in Christian life. Love alone, Aelred wrote, “was the reason why [God] created what was to be created, guides what needs guidance, aids what needs assistance, moves what needs moving, advances what needs advancement, and perfects what needs perfecting.”[4]

            Friendship is an aspect of this love, a participation in God’s love, which leads us to Him. Aelred applies this view to all aspects of life, including all social and political interactions.

            In this context, Aelred’s view of marriage is particularly interesting, especially if we consider the prevailing views of his time. It starts with a view of human beings created in the image of God with equal status and dignity.

            “In a beautiful way, then,” he says, “from the side of the first human a second was produced, so that nature might teach that all are equal or, as it were, collateral, and that among human beings – and this is a property of friendship – there exists neither superior nor inferior.”[5] (This view was not completely original – Peter Lombard and others held the same – but it was still rare at a time when pagan influences were still strong).

            Even more radically in contrast with centuries of teachings that virginity is a preferred state and that marriage’s only purpose is procreation, Aelred provides joyful descriptions of romantic love and passionate desires which are aimed not only at procreation but also “for the necessary sustenance of the body, as in the consumption of food and drink,”[6] and, first and foremost, for mutual spiritual growth.

            “The purpose of marriage,” says Aelred, “is, above all, love. ... Love is initially sparked by some exterior event, such as the meeting of the man and the woman and the arousal of mutual affection. Then, after this contact, love is increased through desire, and from this the expectation that their marriage will be celebrated is more and more enkindled. Moreover, love is the purpose of their marriage, which bears fruit for both in the giving of each to the other.”[7]

            As in other forms of human relations, it is this “giving of each to the other” that promotes growth and allows each to better understand, communicate, and participate in God’s love.

Aelred’s Prayers

            As it is often the case with medieval saints (and others in our varied Christian past), we might not agree with everything Aelred wrote. He has been accused of being vague on some issues and unduly soft on others. But his teachings on love and friendship are pastoral and thought-provoking, and his prayers are moving examples of humility and dependance on God. Here are some excerpts:

            “My God, you are well aware of my stupidity and my weakness is not hidden from you. And so, sweet Lord, I ask to be given not gold or silver or jewels, but rather wisdom so that I may know how to guide your people. O font of wisdom, send her forth from the throne of your glory so that she may be with me, toil with me, work with me, speak with me, and bring my thoughts and my words, all my undertakings and decisions, into harmony with your good will, to the honor of your name, for their progress and my salvation. ...

            You know my heart, O Lord: whatever you have given to your servant, it is my will that it be expended upon them in its entirety and entirely spent on them. ... All that I am, all that gives me life, all that I feel, all that I discern, let all this be expended upon them in all its entirety and entirely spent for their benefit, for the benefit of those for whom you yourself did not consider it unworthy to be utterly spent. ... Teach me, sweet Lord, to admonish the disturbed, to console the fainthearted, to support the weak, and to accommodate myself to each one’s character, disposition, inclinations, aptitude, or simplicity, according to the place and time, as seems best to you.”[8]        

[1] Aelred, The Mirror of Charity, transl. Elizabeth Connor, Cistercian Publications Kalamazoo, Michigan 1990, 135.

[2] Aelred of Rievaulx, quoted in Burton, Pierre-André, Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167): An Existential and Spiritual Biography, trans. Christopher Coski, Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 2020, 188-189.

[3] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. Lawrence C. Braceland, ed. Marsha L. Dutton, Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 2010, 62

[4] Aelred of Rievaulx, A Mirror of Charity, quoted in John R. Sommerfeldt, Aelred of Rievaulx: On Love and Order in the World and the Church, New York: The Newman Press, 2006, 1.

[5] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, 66.

[6] Aelred of Rievaulx, quoted in Sommerfeldt, Aelred of Rievaulx, 107.

[7] Ibid., 105.

[8] Aelred of Rievaulx, Pastoral Prayer 6-7, quoted in Burton, Aelred of Rievaulx, 296-7.


Simonetta Carr