January 2017

Aelred of Rievaulx

 

At this time of the year I usually write about some aspect of the Christmas or Epiphany story. But this means that the saints of December and January get overlooked, and that’s a pity in the case of Aelred of Rievaulx (12 January), who is generally regarded as one of the greatest of England’s medieval religious leaders and one of the most interesting and attractive. His family was connected to the community at Durham: his great-grandfather was sacristan there and his grandfather cathedral canon and treasurer until, in 1083, Bishop William required married priests to choose between their cathedral position and their wives. The grandfather chose his family, and moved to the benefice of Hexham, where his son eventually succeeded him. Aelred was born in 1100 and was probably educated at Durham, where Aelred’s father became a monk in 1138 when he was widowed. But Aelred’s family was not only a priestly one; it was also of considerable social standing, and around 1124 Aelred went to live at the court of King David I of Scotland, where he grew up with David’s two sons, and spent some time serving as steward. In 1134 he travelled to England on a mission from King David, and met with Archbishop Thurstan of York, who shared David’s interest in promoting the newly established Cistercian Order. Aelred spent a day visiting the monastery of Rievaulx, spent the night at Helmsley Castle, where he was hosted by the monastery’s founding patron, Walter l’Espec, and the next day presented himself at the gatehouse asking to be admitted as a monk. He quickly rose to be a major figure: Novice Master at Rievaulx in 1141, a representative of the Abbot on a diplomatic mission to the Pope in 1142, Abbot of Rievaulx’s new daughter-house at Revesby in 1143, and the third Abbot of Rievaulx from 1147, where he died twenty years later.

He was in regular contact with head of the Cistercian Order, Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the towering figures of Western Christendom, visiting him in France, as well as exchanging letters; he played a  major role in developing the Order in England, and was sometimes called upon to resolve disputes in the wider church; he preached and advised at the English and Scottish courts, including preaching at Westminster Abbey when the body of Edward the Confessor was moved into the chapel where it now rests; and he was a prolific author (in Latin, of course), writing histories, lives of English saints, studies in moral and theological enquiry, and above all works of spiritual direction. On a personal level he was renowned for his spirituality, commitment to prayer and meditation, love of humble manual labour, and was revered for his gentleness, courtesy, and practical wisdom. Above all, he was confident in personal relationships, from which grew some of the distinctive characteristics of his writings, many of which still speak to us today. Perhaps we should see his acceptance of the conflicts and contradictions of human life as being fashioned by his own experience: an heir of Anglo-Saxons living under Norman rule, a native speaker of English daily speaking French and Latin, a descendant of generations of married priests coming of age as priests were being forbidden to marry, an English monk in a French order, an abbot bred to service in the church but trained for service in the court, and an increasingly prominent figure who had close personal ties on both sides of the Civil War which divided England in his lifetime. An interesting man indeed!

 

Joyce Hill