Aelred lived in the first half of the 12th century and was abbot of the Cistercian community of Rievaulx, Yorkshire. All his writings by him shine for gentleness and delicacy, but it is one in particular who still enjoys a just reputation today: the one in which the saint illustrates the characteristics that a true Christian friendship should have.
Who knows what Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 1167) would think of our easy 2.0 friendships: those in which it seems almost enough to press a button on a social network to be able to define “friends” of someone else.
Most likely, the saint would be perplexed. Influenced by the spirituality of the so-called “Celtic Christianity”, which had always given great prominence to this sentiment, Aelred held friendship in very high consideration: he considered it one of the greatest consolations of human life, as well as one of the most effective aids to sanctify oneself and get closer to God. Not surprisingly, the monk loved to talk about “spiritual friendship”, to make clear the distance from those worldly friendships that had little to do with the kind of feeling he cared about.
The religious dedicated an entire book to this theme, Spiritual friendship: a unique operetta of its kind, composed in the form of a dialogue between the monk and two of his dear friends who reflect on the ways in which a true friendship between Christians should develop.
True friendship according to Aelred of Rievaulx
The first of the advice that the monk of Rievaulx addresses to those looking for good friends could be summed up in something along the lines of: do not be in too much of a hurry to call those around you “friend”.
In the judgment of the Cistercian saint, true friendship is necessarily a rare thing: “there are many we love, but it is not prudent for all of them to open our hearts” in the ways in which we confide in a friend “with a capital A”.
It is certainly true that a good Christian must feel charity towards any individual with whom he deals; and there is no doubt that in life each of us can meet a huge number of good acquaintances: excellent people towards whom it happens to feel feelings of strong affection, deep esteem, gratitude. But, in the saint’s opinion, true friendship is a feeling so intense and profound that it is naturally and necessarily rare: «the friend must be the guardian of the mutual soul: he must keep in faithful silence all the secrets he finds there; to care for and bear what he sees as imperfect; to rejoice when the friend rejoices, to suffer when he suffers, to feel as one’s own everything that belongs to the friend ».
In short: it doesn’t happen every day to be able to forge such a deep bond with someone. And indeed: quoting that biblical verse that reads “whoever is a friend, he always loves” (Prov 17, 17), Aelred comments: “friendship, if it is true, is eternal; and if instead it ceases to exist, it was not true even if it seemed so ».
But then, how do you go about finding a true friend? According to the saint of Rievaulx, it is a work in stages: first of all, it is necessary to know how to choose the right person; secondly, it is advisable to test her to make sure that she can truly transform into a sincere and loyal friend. The third stage is that in which the one whom we now call “friend” is welcomed into one’s life; and finally, says the saint, quoting the De amicitia of Cicero, it will finally be possible to enjoy with him a “perfect harmony, accompanied by charity and benevolence, with regard to divine and human things”.
How to choose a good friend
The saint of Rievaulx is inflexible on this point: when you are looking for a friend, you must know how to choose him wisely, bearing in mind that “friendship is born among the good, progresses among the best and reaches the apex of the perfect. “.
That is, “there can be no friendship except between one who is pure in heart”; if not, we are faced with another type of feeling; for example, an aseptic frequentation that would risk disappearing at the first difficulties; or, a banal keeping company for the selfish pleasure of giving and receiving compliments.
Then there are human types that (almost) no one would like as a friend. Aelred suggests evaluating with a lot pay attention to the possibility of forming friendships with individuals who are notoriously angry, gossip, liars or fickle: it is certainly possible (and indeed meritorious) to be close to those with a bad temper, but (precisely) a true friendship is something much more serious. And, as the saint writes tranchant: “If you tie yourself up in friendship with an imprudent and imprudent individual, you go and look for daily quarrels and quarrels”.
The virtues that cannot be missing in a good friend
When looking for a good friend, focus instead on those who appear to be faithful, patient, reasonable and selfless. Not a small detail, the latter: indispensable “so that he does not expect anything from friendship other than the good that this brings by nature” and “does not think of joining in friendship in the hope of achieving some advantage, esteeming it to the like a commercial relationship and not a gift “.
Aelred suggests that we use a lot of care in checking for these qualities in the individual we are befriending. It might seem a too cold and rational selection, but the saint believes that this phase of “preliminary investigation” is very useful in order not to suffer later disappointments. “It is a quality of the prudent man to know how to restrain himself, to curb the excessive outbursts of affection, to put a measure on benevolence, to proceed slowly with the feelings”. But when you are sure you have found a true friend: then yes, he will be able to let us go!
The welcome to be reserved for a good friend
“Friends must be simple, open, in harmony with each other, driven by the same interests,” writes Aelred of Rievaulx. And the differences must not matter: if a rich man binds himself in friendship to someone who is poorer; or if a man of vast culture becomes friends with an individual who has not had the opportunity to study, no one should allow himself to point out these inequalities. True friends are placed on the same level and walk side by side: no one should have the audacity to elect themselves as an unsolicited guide. Furthermore, formalities must be banned from friendship: indeed, there is a need for “affability in speaking, smile on the face, sweetness in manners and serenity in gaze: all things that constitute a condiment of no small importance”.
And the recommendations that Aelred addresses to friends who want to live the sentiment that binds them in a Christian way are very sweet: “let them be first of all attentive to one another, pray for one another. Feel the humiliation of the other as your own and rejoice in his joy; cry as your own mistake of the other, consider as your own every progress of him. Encourage the friend in all possible ways, if the other hesitates out of shyness; he supports him if he is weak; console him if he is sad; you bear it if he is angry ». In doing so, the light of the Gospel will begin to reflect itself in that friendship, making it shine as the precious it is.
The perfect harmony of a Christianly lived friendship
“Then you will see how advantageous it is to suffer for one another, to get busy for each other, to carry the burdens for each other”, writes the saint of Rievaulx, “while experiencing all the sweetness of conversation and of sharing resolutions ». In the vision of the Cistercian monk, true friendship is not only sanctifying; it is even a faint foreshadowing of the joys of Paradise. While true friendship matures, “its spiritual fruit will be reaped in joy, in the expectation of the fullness of the time to come. On that day, having swept away the fear that worries us today and keeps us apprehensive for one another, definitively cast out all those adversities that we now have to face for each other, […] we will enjoy that supreme good for eternity. And then this friendship, to which today we admit only a few, will be transfused in everyone and from everyone it will pour out into God ”. And what a joy it will be, at that time, to discover that you are surrounded everywhere by true friends!