The article of the month

Living Stones: Saints of Our Isles by Roy Peachey

Saint Aelred of Rievaulx

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey on the North York Moors are a poignant reminder of the world we have lost. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the monastery was stripped of its assets and fell into disrepair, but in its heyday Rievaulx was the greatest Cistercian abbey in Britain, thanks in large part to Saint Aelred who entered the monastery in 1134, just two years after its foundation, and became its abbot in 1147. During his twenty years at Rievaulx, Aelred built the magnificent church, chapter house, infirmary hall, cloister, and other buildings, as the monastery doubled in size. By the time of his death there were one hundred and forty monks and five hundred lay brothers living, working, and praying there.

As Walter Daniel makes clear in his Vita Ælredi, Saint Aelred was a much-loved spiritual leader of his monastic community, but anyone who knew him in his early years would have been hard pressed to predict this future for him. Aelred was born at a time when the Church was working with great determination to enforce clerical celibacy. At the Council of Clermont in 1095, for example, Pope Urban II forbade the ordination of priests’ sons, allowing them to become only canons regular or monks. This decision shaped the life of Saint Aelred because he wasn’t only the son of a priest but the grandson and great-grandson of priests as well.

Unable to follow in the family tradition, Aelred received a royal education instead, joining the court of King David I of Scotland at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Quickly recognising his talents, King David gave Aelred several positions of responsibility and the future direction of his life seemed set. However, after about ten years at court, Aelred was sent by the king on a mission to York. Stopping off overnight at the home of Walter Epec, the reformist lord of Helmsley, Aelred learned about the new abbey that his host had recently founded at Rievaulx. What he heard and, subsequently, what he saw at the abbey changed the course of his life. Fired with enthusiasm by the reforms Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had initiated at Cîteaux and which had now been brought to the North York Moors, Aelred abandoned his life of privilege and became a devout Cistercian instead. He was just twenty-four years old.

Over the next thirty-three years, Saint Aelred wrote prolifically while also carrying out his abbatial and other duties. Many of the books he produced were in the historical tradition of Saint Bede, but he also wrote saints’ lives (including lives of Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint Ninian), contemplative theology (On Jesus at Twelve Years Old and The Formation of Anchoresses), and several dialogues, including his most popular work, a treatise on Spiritual Friendship in which he taught that “no medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of all our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share our happiness in time of joy”.

Saint Aelred’s powerful writing reaches out to us across the centuries. His moving account of the life of a Cistercian monk from The Mirror of Charity, for example, still has the power to inspire us today: “Our food is scanty, our garments rough; our drink is from the stream and our sleep upon our book. Under our tired limbs there is a hard mat; when sleep is sweetest we must rise at a bell’s bidding…self-will has no scope; there is no moment for idleness or dissipation…. Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity, and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.”

Roy Peachey lives in Surrey, U.K., with his wife and children. He is the author of several books including 50 Books for Life: a concise guide to Catholic literature (Angelico Press) and Did Jesus Go To School? (Redemptorist).