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Living Today Using Insights from the Life of
St. Aelred of Rievaulx


St. Aelred of Rievaulx was a twelfth century English monk who belonged to the Catholic religious order called the Cistercians. He was also a great spiritual writer who specialized in writing about friendship as an image of the relationship between God and each person. Everyone needs someone to whom they can communicate their thoughts and aspirations and not just receive sympathetic understanding, but also healthy criticism. How can you be a person who is another one’s “soul-keeper” or someone’s spiritual friend?

Not all friendship is spiritual. There is such a thing as friendship based on agreement to do evil, e.g., when two thieves get together, or a murder is planned. St. Aelred acknowledges this reality and provides sound criteria for us to discern whether or not our friendships have a spiritual basis. In the initial stages of friendship he suggests four criteria:

  • Purity of intention:  We should be asking ourselves questions like: What kind of relationship do we intend to establish? What are our deeper motives?
  • The direction of reason:   Do we treat the other reasonably or do we just use him or her?
  • The restraint of moderation:  Are we too intrusive of this person's otherness, or are we moderate about the demands we make on him or her?
  • Valuing the friend's love in itself:   Do we value this relationship as gift, or are we seeking some reward other than the friendship itself?

St. Aelred names four qualities in a spiritual friend, namely his capacity for fidelity (a quality of stability through good times and bad), her intention (what she expects from the friendship), discretion (when and under what circumstances is it right to do and say certain things), and patience (not only with the friend herself but also with some of the consequences which arise from the fact that she is associated with this person). By its very nature, friendship is necessarily voluntary and very often has to go through the processes of growth and testing before it can function properly. For St. Aelred, the advantages of a spiritual friendship are secondary by comparison with the value of the relationship itself. One should delight more in the friend’s love than in any benefits one may gain as a result. Friendship is a precious gift, St. Aelred warns, and one should be discerning about whom one chooses as a friend and not establish relationships based on mere whim, convenience or animal attraction. St. Aelred emphasizes that when the gift of friendship is given, one must make a conscious choice to be committed to the relationship. This element of choice means that the relationship will be free, that each person exercises personal responsibility for that friendship. According to St. Aelred, in an authentic spiritual friendship, the primary foundation is the love of God and this should be the main reference point for all that takes place within the friendship.


St. Aelred of Rievaulx writes about the deepest friendship two people can share:

It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love; in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness; in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”
(On Spiritual Friendship)
(Adapted from the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Marriage Tips)

Marriage Tip #1:

Want to change your spouse?   Change yourself.   You might like to make your beloved perfect (in your eyes), but you’ll have more success changing a weakness in yourself.  One person’s change sometimes prompts another to change.

Marriage Tip #2:

Together with your spouse, keep “Thankful” cards by your bed and each night write down one thing you’re thankful for. At the end of the month share the top five with each other.

Marriage Tip #3:

What’s one thing you wanted to change in your beloved this past week? No matter how annoying it was, can you let it go? OK, you can mention it once, but then decide to give your spouse a gift of your amnesia.

Marriage Tip #4:

How much independence is good in a marriage?  Certainly husband and wife should not depend on the other for their identity or self-worth, BUT interdependence is better.  What do you depend on your spouse to do around your home?

Marriage Tip #5:

Love doesn’t mean always rescuing someone from mistakes and foolishness. Tough love helps family members face the realities of cause and effect.” (From: Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference by Susan Vogt).  Parents, cultivate the courage to withstand whining.

Marriage Tip #6:

Your family is a system. This means that when one person changes a behavior – for good or for ill – it impacts everyone.  If you smile, do a favor, give a compliment, it lifts everyone’s spirit. If you complain or nag, it pulls your beloved down too.

Marriage Tip #7:

Choose a virtue to practice today.  Don’t tell anybody what it is but consider charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, or generosity.  At the end of the day, ask your spouse or child if they can guess which one you picked.

Marriage Tip #8:

Husband and wife are meant to lead each other to heaven.  What have you done today to enrich your spouse’s spiritual life?

Marriage Tip #9:

Gratitude dispels anger.  If you are angry at your spouse, think of the times when he/she did something loving for you.

Marriage Tip #10:

Be intentional about giving your spouse your undivided attention when he/she comes home.

Resources on St. Aelred of Rievaulx

“Aelred of Rievaulx: On Spiritual Friendship.” CatholicIreland.net. www.CatholicIreland.net/spirituality/general/490-aelred-of-rievaulx-on-spiritual-friendship (accessed June 30, 2012).  Originally published in Spirituality (September-October 1996), a publication of the Irish Dominicans. No author is cited.

Delaney, John J.  Dictionary of Saints.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980.

St. Aelred of Rievaulx.   Spiritual Friendship.  Translated by Lawrence C. Braceland, S.J.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010.

Squire, O.P., Aelred. “Friendship and Spiritual Direction.” Monastic Studies 12 (1976): 227-38.

“Tips and Advice: Daily Marriage Tips.” For Your Marriage: An Initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
www.ForYourMarriage.org/category/marriage-resource-center/daily-tip/ (accessed July 8, 2012)..