Saint of the week

St Aelred of Rievaulx, 12th January

St Aelred, the 12th century monk, is, according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, “one of the most attractive of English saints, a great teacher of friendship, divine and human”.

He was born in Hexham in the North East of England in 1110, the son of a “hereditary” priest, and after a good education was invited to serve in the court of the King of Scotland and soon became master of the royal household.

There, he was admired for his gentle bearing, patience, his diplomacy and his great talent for being able to make and keep friends. But Aelred eschewed the attractions of the world and, “not able to bear the intolerable stench of my sins”, sought instead the service of God and its “inseparable companion” – the great and sweet sense of inner peace.

To achieve this he left Scotland and, at the age of 24, embraced the austere life of a Cistercian monk at the newly-founded Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. There, as he would later write, he found his mortifications sweet and light, describing them “a yoke which does not crush but liberates the soul”, and a burden with “wings, not weight”.

 

 

He also wrote beautifully about the mutual exchange of love between Creator and creature, identifying God clearly as love itself. “He who loves Thee, possesses thee,” St Aelred said, “and he possesses Thee in proportion as he loves, for Thou art love.”

During this period he wrote a book, De spirituali amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship), in which he speaks evocatively of the vocation “to love and be loved”.

Against his own inclinations, the saint was later appointed as the abbot of a new monastery at Revesby in Lincolnshire in 1142 but five years later he returned to Rievaulx as its abbot, presiding over a community of some 300 monks, to whom he became deeply and tenderly attached. There he remained for the rest of his life, steadfastly refusing offers of various bishoprics.

St Aelred was renowned for his asceticism but even better known for the gentle and lovable qualities of his relationships with others. “For 17 years I lived under his rule and during all that time he dismissed no-one from the monastery,” observed Walter Daniel, a monk and one of his biographers.

In the final 10 years of his life St Aelred was sorely afflicted by gout and stone but he would continue to travel whenever his duties required it. He finally succumbed to a lingering illness in 1166 and died on 12 January 1167 in the shed next to the abbey infirmary that for the previous decade had served as his living quarters.

 

(Photos of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey by Simon Caldwell)