Today we remember Aelred, a sort of mid-level monastic type of saint. The Monastery at Rievaulx, near the Rye River in Yorkshire, caught his eye with its beauty and next thing you know, he was a monk…
Well maybe it was not that simple. He was from a religious family, his father was a priest (back in the day when the Church allowed Priests to marry – way before the Reformation mind you), but he seems to have started on a more political than religious path. He served in the Court of the King of Scotland and learned diplomacy and such. It was on a journey for the monarch that he passed by Rievaulx. The building at that time was stunning, even to someone used to life at court, and that really did prompt him to enter.
It is never easy to predict how someone discovers a monastic vocation – but more on that on some later blog…
It would seem on the face of it that being draw by the exteriors of the building and its location is, to be kind, perhaps a bit shallow. But whatever opens the door…
Aelred is an important voice to many today. He wrote substantially on friendship, especially friendship within the monastery and between the brothers. The model was nothing less than the Trinity – the unending circle of love between God, Jesus, and Spirit. That love – deep, unending, unbreakable – is the model on which we should strive to love.
What we don’t know about Aelred could fill a book. This leads to speculation on who he may have been and what, in particular, may have been his sexual orientation. On the one hand I want to be careful not to retroject 21st Century concerns on a 12th century monk. On the other hand I’ve seen lots of articles that suggest that he was always a faithful Roman Catholic and would never stand in contradiction of Church teaching, so he certainly had no tolerance for anything gay. But that is also retrojection. Aelred’s personal life remains a mystery.
That said, he certainly was a good and faithful Cistercian Monk and chastity was surely part of that. At the same time he encouraged the brothers to be somewhat physically intimate – encouraging them to hold hands for example. Two men holding hands in a 21st Century North American context is unusual. But here in Africa its not so strange – and not sexual. It may be that in the secular world of 12th Century Yorkshire there was more physical affection between men than we think normal today. And Aelred may simply have sought to soften the divide between inside the monastery and outside.
It seems to me that the legacy of Aelred is a more inclusive expression of love and
affection than we accept today. Part of the joy of monasticism is that it tends to de-couple sex from other things. Monks experience very passionate love – it just doesn’t lead to sex. It does lead to intimacy. Thank you Aelred.
In our contemporary culture we seen happy to couple sex with violence – at least in movies and TV. Those little NC-17 notices that slip by will often show the “offending material as “sex and violence”. Its as though there were some natural relationship between the two. But there is absolutely no time when sex and violence should go together – they should never hold hands.
The gentle spirit of Aelred of Rievaulx calls us still to be guided by the love of the Trinity – an unending circle of endless love that can not be broken. Could that love lead to greater intimacy? Certainly. Could it lead to better sex in the right circumstances? Absolutely.
Monasticism has much to share with the world – and the world needs what we have to offer. What the world needs is not some precious, otherworldly, chilly way of living. It needs Aelred – giving us permission to love.