Spiritual Friendship

Aelred, the Abbot of Rievaulx (1109–66), the son of a married priest at Hexham, the ‘Bernard of the North’, entitled his most famous work Spiritual Friendship. Friendship is an excellent way of learning to love but the word occurs rarely in the ancient Christian writers, except for John Cassian (Conference XVI. ‘First Conference of Abbot Joseph on Friendship’ in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, p451). Aware of its pitfalls and dangers these Cistercians used the concept of friendship as a place of meeting with the Lord, to which he would sometimes come to give the grace of love to a heart he had already drawn to himself. Paraphrasing the well-known saying of St John, Aelred wrote: ‘God is friendship and he who lives in friendship lives in God and God lives in him.’ Influenced by the pagan philosopher Cicero’s De Amicitia, Aelred developed his thesis within the framework of many biblical examples resulting in a deeply Christian understanding of love and friendship, both of which are founded on the love of God. The affections must be seasoned with the ‘honey of Jesus’ and ‘salted with the salt of Holy Scripture’. This understanding is rooted in Aelred’s own monastic experience.


The Spiritual Friendship is linked with his other work the Mirror of Charity where towards the end spiritual friendship is represented as a foretaste of heaven, since it is there that love achieves its fullest effect and reaches ‘fruition’. Aelred’s quote from Cicero confirms this, ‘Friendship is agreement on all things sacred and profane, accompanied by goodwill and love’. In its ideal Christian form, friendship will thus be charity when it meets with perfect response and is the reason why it offers us in anticipation an image of what we shall find eternally in God, an image that needs grace to expand it but also which will be the ground and safeguard of grace in us. True friendship is a real virtue and is akin to the highest wisdom. Where we love after the Christian fashion, and pray to Christ for our friends, we pass directly from their friendship to his.


Aelred sees a continuity between a person’s love for friends and the love of God, but he is aware that false expressions of love can emerge when cupidity replaces love. It becomes counterfeit when it becomes ‘self-interested’ or ‘careerist’. True spiritual friendship effects a communion between two people so that their hearts grow and open to love and prayer at the same moment. By means of friendship prayer can be enkindled and burn in the heart and the end of all true friendship is to make one’s friendship with Jesus central to one’s life. Friendship with Jesus is the aim of all fraternal life and he describes how through grace, friendship between the brothers leads into friendship with Jesus. Teresa of Avila said that Christ Jesus dwelling within as a friend and affectionate guide in all the holy contemplatives is the only way to advance. St John tells us to love one another for love is of God. It is this continuity, which helps Christians to affirm that we can be friends with God or with Jesus. Friendship with Jesus, who called us friends, which is at the heart of the spiritual life, is mirrored and foreshadowed in our human friendships.

Taking special pleasure in the company of friends is compatible with the highest degree of Christian perfection. Jesus loved John, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and this probably means that he found their company congenial. While we are to love everyone, it is good to have friends to whom we can open our hearts in confidence and trust as Jesus had Mary, Martha and Lazarus. However, at all times Aelred’s concern is that his monks are faithful to their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, because he is too conscious of the temptations to let friendship descend from the spiritual into the physical. He writes to a hermit nun bluntly of ‘the effrontery of some who, grown old in uncleanness, will not even forego the company of undesirable persons … my purpose in making these observations has been to make you aware of the care you must take to preserve your chastity. Yet, although it is the flower and adornment of all the virtues, it withers and fades away without humility.’

In friendship are joined honour and charm, truth and joy, sweetness and goodwill, affection and action. And all these take their beginning from Christ, advance through Christ, and are perfected in Christ. Therefore, not too unnatural or too steep does the ascent appear from Christ, as the inspiration of the love by which we love our friends, as Christ giving himself to us as our Friend for us to love, so that charm may follow upon charm, sweetness upon sweetness, and affection upon affection. And thus, friend cleaving to friend in the spirit of Christ, is made with Christ but one heart and one soul, and so mounting aloft through degrees of love to friendship with Christ.

Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College, Durham.