As it is often the case with medieval saints (and others in our varied Christian past), we might not agree with everything Aelred wrote. He has been accused of being vague on some issues and unduly soft on others. But his teachings on love and friendship are pastoral and thought-provoking, and his prayers are moving examples of humility and dependance on God.
In 1134, a reputable young man with a promising career at the court of David I, king of Scots, saddled his horse and started his journey to a remote abbey in a North Yorkshire valley. His name is Aelred. He never returned from his journey, and his decision to abandon everything to attain Christ is the reason why he is still known today.
Aelred the Nobleman
Aelred was born at Hexham, Northumberland, in 1110. His father was a priest (priests could still marry at that time). After his studies, in which he excelled, sometimes after 1124 he obtained a place at the court of David I, king of Scots, and his wife Matilda as a companion to Matilda’s sons: Simon and Waldef, born from a previous marriage, and Henry, her only son with David. Aelred and Henry became especially close. Due to his diplomatic abilities, Aelred rose to the title of Master of the Household and was employed in several diplomatic missions.
Sometimes between 1128 and 1131, Waldef left the court to become an Augustinian canon. He stayed in touch with Aelred, possibly highlighting some discontents already brewing in Aelred’s mind. Waldef mentioned the Cistercian Abbey at Rievaulx as an example of a community devoted to the love of God and others, and Aelred decided to travel there with a friend.
Aelred was impressed with what he saw. Still, he left to return home, only to ask his companion to take him back to the abbey one more time. This time he never left, feeling he had found his true home.
He later wrote, addressing God: “At last I began to surmise, as much as my inexperience allowed, or rather as much as you permitted, how much joy there is in your love, how much tranquility with that joy, and how much security with that tranquility. Someone who loves you makes no mistake in his choice, for nothing is better than you.”
If we detect a resemblance with Augustine’s Confessions, it is because that was one of Aelred’s favorite texts, and much of his first major work, The Mirror of Charity, is fashioned after that. Aelred was also greatly influenced by Cicero’s De Amicitia, which he viewed through the lens of Augustine’s writings.
Aelred the Monk
Recognizing Aelred’s talents and experience, William, abbot of Rievaulx, sent him on several diplomatic missions as well, including one to Pope Innocent II in Rome. Later, Aelred was appointed novice master at Rievaulx (a pastor for prospective monks). His warm and compassionate spirit made him the perfect candidate for the task. In 1143, he was appointed first abbot of Revesby in Lincolnshire, where he stayed until 1147, when Maurice, the abbot who had succeeded William at Rievaulx, resigned, and Aelred was elected as his successor. Aelred kept this office for the next twenty years.
News of Aelred’s loving and caring leadership spread throughout Europe, bringing many novices to the abbey, which doubled in size. He also became famous as a preacher and writer. The fact that we still have a large quantity of his writings, gathered from different abbeys, is a proof of how much they had spread and how carefully they had been preserved.
The last ten years of Aelred’s life were difficult, as he suffered from arthritis, gout, kidney stones, and a chronic respiratory disease. He was so ill that in 1157 he had to be admitted to the infirmary at Rievaulx. From there, he moved to a nearby hut where, despite his continued sufferings, he kept receiving the numerous visitors who continued to flock by his side.
By January 1167, knowing he was about to die, he asked for three books: his psalter, Augustine’s Confessions, and the gospel of John. He died on 12 January 1167.