12th January – St Aelred of Rievaulx, Cistercian Abbot (1110-1167)

Today we celebrate the memory of one of the formative abbots and teachers in the early Cistercian tradition who, together with Bernard of Clairvaux, Guerric of Igny and William of St Thierry forms a group often known as the Four Evangelists of Cîteaux: St Aelred of Rievaulx.

Aelred came from Hexham, in northern England, and was educated in Durham.  As a young man, he lived at the court of King David of Scotland.  He entered the monastery of Rievaulx in 1134, becoming successively novice-master there, then first abbot of Revesby, its daughter house.  In 1147 he was elected abbot of Rievaulx, a post he retained, despite his increasing ill-health, until his death in 1167.  Blessed with a radiant and sympathetic personality, he had a gift for friendship and a talent for guiding his monks with gentleness and wisdom.

Aelred’s first work, undertaken at the urging of Bernard of Clairvaux, was The Mirror of Charity, a work written as a guide for novices beginning their monastic life in the Cistercian way.  In it he describes the ties joining love of self, neighbour and God.  His later writings include a meditation on Jesus at the Age of Twelve and a Rule for a Recluse, both of which reveal his devotion to Christ’s sacred humanity.  In his best known work, On Spiritual Friendship, he explains how human friendship becomes a path to God.

There can be little doubt that Aelred, while not demonstrating the rich language and imagery characteristic of St Bernard, nonetheless shows himself to be a paradigm of the new Cistercian way and proposes it clearly and convincingly.  In his chapter discourses, many of which have survived, we hear an abbot entirely in harmony with his brothers, showing a deep understanding of their struggles and joys in the Cistercian life, and all drawn together in a characteristic Christ-centredness which is so typical of the Cistercian model.  Aelred offers an abundant teaching on the Rule of St Benedict, the monastic and spiritual tools which one should find and develop in the Cistercian cloister and which sit at the centre of the new Cistercian asceticism which swept Europe and saw a huge growth in monastic life in the one hundred and fifty years after the founding of the New Monastery at Cîteaux in 1098.

Like St Bernard, St Aelred was not long dead when his biography was written, in this case by his loyal secretary in Rievaulx, Walter Daniel.  While it is difficult at times to accept entirely what Walter offers us – he has a tendency to hero worship the man Aelred and so presents a figure almost entirely without fault – the Life presents a valuable document and insight into Aelred’s times and term as the third abbot of Rievaulx, the extraordinary growth which it experienced under his abbatial rule, and his undoubted sanctity as an abbot and servant to his community.  Perhaps as we continue to ask the intercession of the great figures of our Order – and it is from Aelred that we receive the well-known saying about the Cistercian way: ordo noster crux Christi est (our ordered way of life if the cross of Christ) – we can allow Walter Daniel, in his own words, to tell us something of the Cistercian community at Rievaulx under Aelred, and ask something of its graces for ourselves and the renewal of our Order which we desire in new vocations:

“He turned the house of Rievaulx into a stronghold for sustaining the weak, the nourishment of the strong and whole; it was the home of piety and peace, the abode of perfect love of God and neighbour.  Who was there, however despised and rejected, who did not find in it a place of rest? Whoever came there in his weakness and did not find a loving father in Aelred and timely comforters in the brethren?  When was anyone, feeble in body and character, ever expelled from that house, unless his iniquity was an offence to the community or had destroyed all hope of salvation?  Hence it was that monks in need of mercy and compassion flocked to Rievaulx from foreign peoples and from the far ends of the earth, that there in very truth they might find peace and the ‘holiness without which no man may see God’.


“And so those wanderers in the world to whom no house of religion gave entrance came to Rievaulx, the mother of mercy, and found the gates open, and entered by them freely, giving thanks unto their Lord.  If one of them in later days had taken it upon himself to reprove in angry commotion some silly behaviour, Aelred would say, ‘Do not, brother, do not kill the soul for which Christ died, do not drive away our glory from this house.  Remember that we are sojourners as were all our fathers, and that it is the singular and supreme glory of the house ofRievaulx that above all else it teaches tolerance of the infirm and compassion with others in their necessities.  And this is the testimony of our conscience, that this house is a holy place because it generates for its God sons who are peacemakers.  All, whether weak or strong, should find in Rievaulx a haunt of peace, and there, like the fish in the broad seas, possess the welcome, happy, spacious peace of charity.” 

Water Daniel, The Life of Aelred of Rievaulx

-Part of our ‘Celebration of the Saints’ series-


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