St. Aelred of Rievaulx

(1110 - 1167)

Aelred, one of the most notable of English monks, was born into a noble family at Hexham in northern England. Having received a very good classical education, he spent some time in the court of David I, King of Scotland.

All in the royal Scots court admired him for his talent and even more for his gentle personality. An illustration: once, in the presence of the king, another courtier insulted Aelred, accusing him of many misdeeds. Aelred listened patiently. Then, when his accuser had finished, he quietly thanked him for his charity in telling him his faults. The accuser was so surprised by Aelred’s perfect humility that he forthwith asked him to forgive his intemperate remarks.

Even by that time the future saint was pondering a vocation to the monastic life. He hesitated to enter a monastery because it would have meant giving up the companionship of his many friends. Gradually, however, he came to see in his very hesitation a cowardly attachment to human beings rather than to God.

At age 24, therefore, he went back to England and asked admission into the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx. Rievaulx monastery had been established about two years before by a disciple of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the second founder of the Cistercian monks. Aelred took to the Cistercian (Trappist) rigors like a fish to water. The strict rule was to mold him, and he in turn would help to mold the Cistercian spirit.

Father Aelred’s many gifts, natural and supernatural, were to attract the attention of his fellow Cistercians. In 1142 he was elected abbot of a new daughter monastery at Revesby, England. Five years later, he was brought back to RievauIx to head that abbey of some 300 monks. He accepted both promotions with reluctance. He knew that they would involve giving up much of his beloved silence. But of course he proved ideal for the role, accepting its duties as a cluster of necessary crosses.

As superior, nobody was stricter than Abbot Aelred, yet he ruled with winning gentleness. One of his major contributions to the monastic life and to spiritual life in general was his writings, one of which St. Bernard himself commissioned him to compose. They were theologically precise and fervent, yet their simplicity and literary expression made them very appealing. As a monastic leader, a learned man and a writer, Aelred naturally moved in the circles of abbots and bishops and kings. But he in no way allowed fame to turn his head. Like his master St. Bernard of Clairvaux, he refused more than once to accept an appointment to a bishopric.

Although Aelred was physically very infirm in his last years, his disciples were deeply grieved to lose him to death, so much did they love him. In his writing on Spiritual Friendship, the saint had once written a passage that could be used to describe the writer himself: He was one “whom I might fitly call friendship’s child, for his whole occupation was to love and to be loved.”

No wonder St. Aelred of Rievaulx, canonized, apparently, in 1191, was hailed as “the St. Bernard of the North.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara