Aelred, OSB Cist. Abbot
(also known as Ailred, Ethelred)
Feast day: February 3
Born 1110 Hexham, Northumberland, England
Died 12 January 1167 Rievaulx, Yorkshire, England
Born in Hexham, Northumberland, England, c. 1109; died at Rievaulx Monastery, Yorkshire, England, on January 12, 1167; canonized by the General Chapter of Cîteaux in 1250 (and Attwater says he was canonized in 1191 but he is not in the Roman Martyrology so this statement may be in error); today is the feast celebrated by the Cistercians, feast day on calendar also on March 3, when it is celebrated in Hexham, Liverpool, Middleborough, and by the Cistercians; feast day formerly on January 12. Aelred belonged to a noble family. He was the son and grandson of parish priests of Hexham--sainthood was probably in his genes. He was educated at Durham in the arts, letters, and the new humanism of the time.
At about age 20, Aelred was taken into the service of King Saint David at the beginning of his reign. Aelred became a clerk and then high steward of the household in the Scottish court because he was so beloved for his piety, gentleness, humility, and spirituality by King David, who, though son of Saint Margaret, considered the sword and knighthood more certain guarantees of his kingdom whose districts and frontier fiefs were in continual legal disputes.
The favors that Aelred received at court won him enemies. One of the king's knights, a jealous man, developed a hatred for Aelred because of the favors constantly bestowed upon him. One day h
is intense hatred burst out in the presence of the king himself. Bitter reproaches and insults followed.
Aelred replied without emotion: "You are right, Sir Knight, and you have said the truth: your words are exact, and I see that you are a true friend of mine." The soldier begged his pardon immediately, and swore that henceforth he would do everything he could for Aelred. "I am very happy you have repented," said Aelred, "and I like you the more for it, because your jealousy has been for you a means of advancing in the love of God."
Aelred formed a close relationship with David's son, Earl Henry. His soul was so torn between answering God's call to the cloistered life and remaining at court with Henry. Aelred considered friendship a most precious gift. His dilemma was solved when he visited the recently-founded Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx on his return from an interview with the archbishop of York.
Aelred chose not to return to the Scottish court. Thus, at age 24 (c. 1134), Aelred enter Rievaulx, where Saint Bernard had appointed his secretary William as abbot over the monks from Clairvaux who formed the community. In spite of delicate health, Aelred conformed to the austere regime and became so esteemed by his community that he was chosen as envoy to Rome in 1142 over the disputed election of Saint William of York and, soon afterwards, as master of novices.
Within a short time, he was obliged to change monasteries to avoid being named a bishop; but no sooner had he relocated himself than he was chosen to be abbot of a new Cistercian monastery in Revesby, Lincolnshire, in 1143. His biographers say that this new position did not prevent his "living a life of the severest asceticism." Under his rule, the house prospered, increasing in size to 150 choir monks and 500 lay brothers and lay servants--the largest in England. It expanded to five other foundations in England and Scotland.
Inspired by the writings of Saints John Chrysostom and Augustine and augmented by Aelred's own gentle holiness and natural charity, he was able to humanize the intransigence of Cistercian monasticism and attracted men of similar character to his own. Through his many friends as well as his writings, Aelred became a figure of national importance. He was chosen to preach at Westminster for the translation of Saint Edward the Confessor. This led him to compose a vita of Edward; he had already completed one on Saint Ninian and one the saints of Hexham.
Four years later he returned to Rievaulx as abbot, succeeding Abbot Maurice. During his abbacy the number of monks at Rievaulx rose to over 600, attracted by his kindly, humane nature. In addition to looking after these he had every year to visit other Cistercian houses in England and Scotland, and even to go as far afield as the Cistercian centers of Cîteaux and Clairvaux. These journeys must have been a great trial to him, for during his later years Aelred suffered from a painful disease in addition to rheumatism.
Aelred became known for his prudence and holiness throughout England. He was admitted to the councils of the highest dignitaries in the land and was constantly called upon to settle disputes. King Henry II of England was his friend, and, in 1160, during the papal schism, he was able to influence the king on behalf of Pope Alexander III.
In 1164, he went to Galway in Ireland as a missionary but the following year he returned to England. Famed for his preaching, energy, sympathetic gentleness, and asceticism, Aelred was consider a saint in his own lifetime. He was also considered a delightful companion because of his wit, easy speech, and brilliant mind.
His biographer and disciple, Walter Daniel records: "I lived under his rule for 17 years, and in that time he did not dismiss anyone from the monastery." Aelred's name, indeed, is particularly associated with friendship--human and divine. One of his two best known writings is a little work On Spiritual Friendship which is delicately beautiful. Only when Aelred's enormous capacity for friendship was transformed by charity was finally able to write the unique treatment of the subject. It resembles Cicero's dialogue on the topic, but is identifiably Christian in its approach.
Aelred also penned the Mirror of Charity (Seculum caritas), a treatise on Christian perfection. His sermons on Isaiah are also fine writing and he also composed biographies of the saints. He was in the process of writing a treatise on the human soul, which was left unfinished, by his death at age 57. His writings and sermons are characterized by a constant appeal to the Bible and to a love of Christ as friend and savior that was the mainspring of his life.
Saint Aelred's frequent travel and writings merited for him the title of "a second Saint Bernard" or "the Bernard of the North." On his way to his Scottish foundations, Aelred used to visit his friend Saint Godric of Finchale. In the last year of his life, he could no longer travel. After being for a time virtually in a state of physical collapse, Saint Aelred died his monastery, in a shed adjoining the infirmary that he had made his quarters. The historian of monasticism in England, Professor David Knowles, says that Aelred is "a singularly attractive figure . . . No other English monk of the 12th century so lingers in the memory."
Saint Aelred was buried in the chapter house. Later his relics were translated to the church. Aelred was never formally canonized; however, his local cultus was approved by the Cistercians who promulgated his feast