Another pioneering figure in the long lineage of teachers of what has come to be called by modern scholars, “affective piety,” is the 12th century Cistercian abbot, Aelred of Rievaulx. 1 Under Aelred’s abbatial leadership, Rievaulx abbey in North Yorkshire was said to have tripled in size. But more important than numbers were the character and charism of the community. Aelred’s fellow-monk and his biographer, Walter Daniel, writes of the abbey:
Who was there, however despised and rejected, who did not find in it a place of rest? Whoever came there in his weakness and did not find a loving father in Aelred and timely comforters in the brethren? 2
Brother Walter continues, praising the openness, hospitality, and care of the monastery:
Hence it was that monks in need of mercy and compassion flocked to Rievaulx from foreign peoples and from the far ends of the earth, that there in very truth they might find peace and ‘the holiness without which no man shall see God’ [uidebit Deum]. And so those wanderers in the world to whom no house of religion gave entrance, came to Rievaulx, the mother of mercy, and found the gates open … 3
While Aelred wrote many texts on the spiritual life, it is his A Rule of Life for a Recluse that most speaks to Julian’s longing for “mind of the passion,” for a desire to “see” the Passion. In this text, which he wrote for his biological sister, the Cistercian offers specific instruction in the practices of prayer and meditation. In this guidance, Aelred is equipping the practitioner to transverse the barriers that time would appear to place on vision: “When your mind has been cleansed by the practice of the virtues from all the thoughts which clogged it, cast your eyes back, purified as they are now, to the past.” 4 Then he moves through the events of Jesus’ life, beginning with the Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary. In these meditations, the practitioner is invited not only to “see,” to “gaze upon,” and to “consider,” but to be present with and “join” with the many figures in the events depicted in scripture and developed within the tradition, and even to participate in these episodes actively. Aelred continuously invites his reader to be affectively engaged and responsive to the privileged participation their meditation offers them. While this guidance vividly moves through the events of Christ’s birth, childhood, ministry, and Resurrection, it is the narrative of the Passion that emerges as a primary focus of the Cistercian’s teaching. 5 And vision provides the key to the space in which these events unfold: “[Jesus] himself leads the way to Mt. Olivet …he withdraws in solitude, look on [intuere] if only from a distance, and see how he takes upon himself our weakness”; “See [Intuere] with what loving gaze, how mercifully, how effectually [Jesus] looked at Peter who has thrice denied him …”; “See now [ecce], after the scourging he is led forth, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe …” 6 With tender counsel, Aelred leads the reader to see, to be present with, and to assist Joseph of Arimathea as he receives and moves the broken body of Jesus:
See [Vide] how in his most happy arms he embraces that sweet body and clasps it to his breast. Then could that holy man say: ‘My beloved is a bundle of myrrh to me, he shall rest upon my breast.’ It is for you to follow that precious treasure of heaven and earth, and either to hold the feet or support the hands and arms … 7
- Bernard McGinn introduces Aelred (1110 – 1167) as the “the son and the grandson of hereditary priests from the northern English border country.” The noted scholar continues: “As a young man [Aelred] had a distinguished career in the court of William of Scotland, though in his later monastic years he bewailed the sinfulness of his youth. After a crisis of conscience, he joined the Cistercians at Rievaulx, a foundation of Clairvaux, in 1134. While on official business to Rome, Aelred passed through Clairvaux in 1141, where he met Bernard – a meeting of great moment for the younger monk. Bernard encouraged Aelred to put together and expand notes on the meaning of caritas that he had been working on. The result was the Mirror of Charity in three books, Aelred’s central work, and one that came forearmed with a prefatory letter by Bernard himself. By 1147 Aelred was made abbot of Rievaulx, where he served until his death twenty years later.” (Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great through the 12th century. Volume II of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York, N.Y.: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996, page 310.) Upon Aelred’s death, a fellow monk, Walter Daniel, was asked to write a biography, a Vita. Among the first words in this work of affection and admiration are these: “Our father is dead; he has vanished from our world like the morning sunshine, and many hearts long that this great light should flood with its brightest the memory of generations to come, and indeed of those still living for whom it shone in all its splendour.” (Walter Daniel, The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx. Edited and translated by the late Sir Maurice Powicke. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1950/1978, page 1.) Latin: “Quoniam quidem pater noster obiit et quasi lux matutina euanuit e terra nostra et multorum animo insidet ut radius tanti luminis refundatur ad memoriam et illuminacionem futurorum, immo eciam et quorundam presencium quibus et ipsum lumen emicuit in fulgore suo …” (Ibid., page 1).
- Walter Daniel, The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx. Translated from the Latin with Introduction and Notes by the late Sir Maurice Powicke, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950/1978, page 37. Latin: “Quia ibi licet abiectissimus et contemptibilis locum quietis non inuenit? Quis debilis umquam uenit ad eam et in Alredo non reperit pateram dileccionem et in fratribus debitam consolacionem?” (Ibid., page 37). See also John R. Sommerfeldt, Aelred of Rievaulx, On Love and Order in the World and the Church. New York: The Newman Press, 2006, page 43.
- Walter Daniel, The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx. Translated from the Latin with Introduction and Notes by the late Sir Maurice Powicke, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950/1978, page 37. Latin: “Unde quidem ex exteris nacionibus et remotis terre finibus conuolabant at Rieuallem monachi misericordia indigentes fraterna et compassione, qui reuera ibi repererunt pacem et sanctimoniam sine qua nemo uidebit Deum. Et utique illi qui uagantes in seculo quibus nullus locus religionis prestabat ingressum, accedentes ad matrem misericordie Rieuallem et portas apertas inuenientes …” (Ibid., page 37). The scripture passage which Brother Walter weaves into his words comes from the Letter to the Hebrews (12.14): “pacem sequimini cum omnibus et sanctimoniam sine qua nemo videbit Dominum” (Vulgate). English: “Follow peace with all men and holiness: without which no man shall see God” (Douay–Rheims).
- Aelred of Rievaulx, “A Rule of Life for Recluse.” Translated by Mary Paul Macpherson. Aelred of Reivaulx: Treatises and The Pastoral Prayer. Ed. M. Basil Pennington. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1971, page 80. Latin: “Cum igitur mens tua fuerit ab omni cogitationum sorde virtutum exercitio purgata, jam oculos defaecatos ad posteriora retorque.” (Beati Aelredi Abbatis Rievallis, “De Institutione Inclusarum,” Estratto da Patrologia Latina PL 32, col. 1451-74, J. P. Migne 1841, (Caput XLVII). Retrieved from ora-et-labora.net: https://ora-et-labora.net/aelredoregolalat.html For a slightly different rendering of Aelred’s Latin into English, I offer that of scholar Barbara Newman: “Now that your mind has been cleansed from all defiling thoughts by the practice of virtues, turn your purified eyes back to the past.” (Barbara Newman, “What Did It Mean to Say ‘I Saw’? The Clash between Theory and Practice in Medieval Visionary Culture.” Speculum, Vol. 80, No. 1, January 2005, page 26.)
- Scholar Wolfgang Riehle, notes that, at “first glance,” Aelred’s Rule of Life for a Recluse, “might appear to be an unexceptional document.” However, Professor Riehle asserts, “it was far ahead of its time in envisioning a form of monastic training through meditation that is most often associated with the affective spirituality of the later Middle Ages.” The noted medievalist also explains: “At the heart of Aelred’s teaching on meditation is the principle of remembering (dulcis memoria). This remembering is a continuation of reading (lectio), which is in effect the subject matter of the meditation. Aelred not only recounts for his sister the essential stations of Christ’s suffering, but also presents them in a way that implants in her the seed of intense emotional love.” (Wolfgang Riehle, The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England. Translated by Charity Scott-Stokes. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2014, pages 27 and 28.). Regarding the impact of the Cistercian abbot’s teaching on meditation, scholar Marsha Dutton writes: “Aelred is notable for many literary and stylistic innovations that have powerfully influenced centuries of theological and historical writers. His … works on spiritual direction guide the reader to increasing spiritual intimacy with Jesus through imaginative participation in the events of his life. This new form of spirituality led directly to Bonaventure’s Tree of Life, the popular Pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditations on the Life of Christ, Ludolph the Carthusian’s Life of Jesus Christ, and Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.” Professor Dutton also affirms that Aelred’s Rule of Life for a Recluse, “influenced other works of anchoritic direction in the 12th and 13th centuries, cited for example in the popular Ancrene Riwle …” (Marsha L. Dutton, “Aelred of Rievaulx: Abbot, Teacher, Author.” A Companion to Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) Edited by Marsha L. Dutton. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2017. pages 44 and 45 respectively.) See also, Marsha L. Dutton, “The Cistercian Source: Aelred, Bonaventure, and Ignatius.” Goad and Nail: Studies in Medieval Cistercian History, x, Edited by E. Rozanne Elder, cs 84 (Kalamazoo, 1985), pages 151-78.
- Aelred of Rievaulx, “A Rule of Life for Recluse.” Translated by Mary Paul Macpherson. Aelred of Reivaulx: Treatises and The Pastoral Prayer. Edited by M. Basil Pennington. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1971, page 87-89. Latin: “[P]raecedet ipse ad montem Oliveti … vel a longe intuere, quomodo in se nostram transtulit necessitatem.” (Caput LVII); “Intuere quam piis oculis, quam misericorditer, quam efficaciter tertio negantem respexit Petrum …” (Caput LIX); Ecce educitur flagellatus portans spineam coronam et purpureum vestimentum …” (Caput LIX). Abbatis Rievallis, “De Institutione Inclusarum,” Estratto da Patrologia Latina PL 32, col. 1451-74, J. P. Migne 1841. Retrieved from ora-et-labora.net: https://ora-et-labora.net/aelredoregolalat.html
- Aelred of Rievaulx, “A Rule of Life for Recluse.” Translated by Mary Paul Macpherson. Aelred of Reivaulx: Treatises and The Pastoral Prayer. Ed. M. Basil Pennington. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1971, page 91. Latin: “Vide quomodo felicissimis brachiis corpus complectitur, ac suo astringit pectori. Tunc dicere potuit vir ille sanctissimus: Fasciculus myrrhae, dilectus meus … Sequere tu pretiosissimum illum coeli terraeque thesaurum, vel pedes porta; vel manus brachiaque sustena …” Abbatis Rievallis, “De Institutione Inclusarum,” Estratto da Patrologia Latina PL 32, col. 1451-74, J. P. Migne 1841, (Caput LXIV). Retrieved from ora-et-labora.net: https://ora-et-labora.net/aelredoregolalat.html Professor Barbara Newman adds her voice and scholarly insight the discussion of Aelred’s influence on meditation practice: “Aelred’s how-to manual for producing visions was among the first experiments in what would become an extremely popular genre of guided meditations …. [S]cripted visionary guides such as Aelred’s require the reader to consult only one book, and their vernacular offspring do not even presume direct knowledge of the Gospels. Many such works are dedicated to women, whose devotional reading was expected to result in the experience of new visions but not necessarily in the creation of new texts.” Barbara Newman, “What Did It Mean to Say ‘I Saw’? The Clash between Theory and Practice in Medieval Visionary Culture.” Speculum, Vol. 80, No. 1, January 2005, page 27.
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