Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Celebrating Saints, and Aelred's Feast Day

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey (

            After I wrote about Alfred a while back, a non-religious friend asked me, “How do you celebrate a saint, or a feast day? Can I do it too?” I imagine historians and theologians will have more specific and technical answers to that question; my own answer comes via an Evangelical background, plus four years at Princeton following the feast days at midday Eucharist and Evening Prayer.
            I think "celebrating a feast day" means celebrating how God has been shown to us in the life of a particular person. It is a natural extension of taking happiness in another’s happiness, feeling joyful because someone is joyful, being pleased at another’s pleasure. In the lives of the saints and holy people we commemorate, we take both pleasure and instruction from the aspects of their lives which make them holy. In them we see one specific way in which a portion of the great array of virtues can be arranged into a life.
            A feast day does this in two ways: first, in the way it tells us about the person we’re celebrating; second, in the pieces of Scripture it selects for our attention.
            It tells us about the person indirectly in the Collect, in the context of their virtues which we hope to emulate; it tells us about them directly in the summary of their life in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. And the Scripture readings are small focalizations of the Bible—from many voices and many ideas and many times and languages, they pick a few which explain, enlighten, and/or complicate the life and virtues of the saint. Although we know the Bible is bigger and even more complicated than the few pages of text collected for the day, we’re invited to see the whole through this one small window.
            Which, if you think about it, is an awful lot like how we see God through the life of a holy person.

            Today is the feast day of St. Aelred, whose life and Collect narrow down the broad command “Love your neighbor” into the specific “Love your friends.” Today we pray for “the Holy Spirit’s gift of love,” so that we, “clasping each the other's hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with [God’s] servant Aelred draw many to [God’s] community of love.”  
            Aelred was born in 1109, and in 1133 he became a Cistercian monk (and later the abbot) at the abbey of Rievaulx, in North Yorkshire (located sort of in the center of that big lovely island). The Church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts tells us that he “soon became a major figure in English church life”; on his way back from Rome, he stopped at Clairvaux, where St. Bernard (abbot of Clairvaux and church reformer) “encouraged the young monk to write his first work, Mirror of Charity, on Christian perfection.”
And why do we connect Aelred with friendship? Lesser Feasts says that his most famous work is called On Spiritual Friendship, a long dialogue in which Aelred teaches that friendship “is both a gift from God and a creation of human effort. While love is universal, freely given to all, friendship is a particular love between individuals, of which the example is Jesus and John the Beloved Disciple.” For Aelred, true friendship has a “sacramental essence”—as we love one another, we may be united with Christ in this life, and know beatitude in the life to come.*
The readings today offer us specific visions of what it might mean to love our friends. We hear first in Philippians a plea to “[d]o nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
In John, Jesus says that we can continue to “abide in his love” if we “keep his commandments”. More specifically: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
            Growing up, this sentence—“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”—was thrown about at every opportunity. Reading it again this week, I find I had now the same question I had then: What does this mean for me, a privileged person in the United States, who has no fear for her safety or the safety of her friends—what does it mean, to lay down my life?
            Philippians offers us an answer: laying down our lives might mean that we give up our own “selfish ambition,” our self-regard, the things in our life that seem (incorrectly) to be deeply important. Aelred says that “[true] friendship can last only among the good” (2.41), and “the good” are those “who within the limits of our mortal life live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world” (2.43). A friend, says Aelred, is one “with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress, to whom you may entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans. And what is more delightful than so to unite spirit to spirit and so to make one out of two?” (2.11).**
This whole-hearted and honest friendship leaves little room for pettiness—for grudges, for passive aggression, for resentment, or all the niggling forms of selfishness which can easily creep into our relationships. Instead, Aelred points us towards a generosity and commitment to those we love, which in turn leads us to God.

Pour into our hearts, O God, the Holy Spirit's gift of love, that we, clasping each the other's hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred draw many to your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

*From the Introduction by Marsha L. Dutton to Lawrence C. Braceland’s translation of On Spiritual Friendship, pages 22-23.
*From the translation of On Spiritual Friendship by Lawrence C. Braceland, SJ, published in 2010 by Liturgical Press as part of the Cistercian Fathers series. The “2” refers to Book Two.

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