Spiritual Friendship as Spiritual Formation: Part I
I’ve been silent on the blog for awhile because I’ve been hammering away at finishing my second semester of my Doctorate of Ministry program. Our final paper could be about anything we wanted, as long as it was about some historical Christian figure and how their work pertains to personal spiritual formation (in others words, how a dead saint’s words relate to becoming a holier person). So of course, I jumped on the opportunity to write on St. Aelred and how his work on Spiritual Friendship relates to personal spiritual formation. And I thought I’d share it with you!
Below is Part I of my paper, with the remainder to be posted in weeks to come. Happy reading!
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One of the most powerful forces of personal formation is one’s friendships. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, says, “[humans] are an ultra social species, full of emotions finely tuned for loving, befriending, helping, sharing, and otherwise intertwining [their] lives with others.”The human brain is a malleable social organ, being formed and shaped by the many social encounters in one’s life. Psychologists Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson note that “our communities play an instrumental rolein influencing our individual psyches,”making friendship a foundational element in personal formation. Dr. Henry Cloud furthers this when he states, “Our relationships help write the ‘code’ of whom we become and are becoming. Relationships have power, for good and for bad.”Relationships are a significant determining factor for both who one becomes and the overall quality of his or her life.
One of the most crucial sources for life transformation resides in friendship. If friendship is one of the largest factors that forms the overall quality of one’s life, how much more so could it form one’s spirituality. Could friendship be listed among the rest of the disciplines to grow in God, discern his will, and hear his voice, just as prayer, fasting, study, and the remaining classical disciplines do?
In this paper, I will examine how the spiritual friendship tradition taught by St. Aelred of Rievaulx is a means to personal spiritual formation. First, I will provide an overview of St. Aelred’s life and his work on spiritual friendship. Then, I will present Aelred’s thoughts on spiritual friendship through the framework of his threefold kiss analogy to show it coincides with the threefold way of ancient spiritual formation.
St. Aelred’s Life & Spiritual Friendship
St. Aelred grew up in a highly educated and religious family in Hexham, Northumbria, near the border of Scotland, in the early 1100s. At the age of 14 or 15, Aelred was sent away to the court of King David I to continue his education. His studies required a familiarity with many classic texts, including Cicero’s treatise On Friendship.This work had a considerable impact on Aelred that would later inform his theology of spiritual friendship in his own treatise on the matter.
After nearly nine years of studying in the king’s court, Aelred became discontent with his luxurious life and noble status. Two days after visiting the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in 1134, Aelred admitted himself as a monk, convinced this place held the secrets to a deeper life. After a decade of monastic life and ministry, Aelred was elected as the abbot of Rievaulx in 1147. He held the position until his death 20 years later.
Aelred’s monastic background largely influenced his theology and thought on spiritual friendship. He valued experience that led to union with God, such as prayer and study, but also held love as the core means to dwell with the divine. Therefore, Aelred believed friendship “was a way in which this love could be experienced on earth,” and “that the Christian faith could transform human friendship and raise it to new heights.”In one of the greatest works of medieval spirituality, Aelred Christianizes Cicero’s definition of friendship in his own treatise, Spiritual Friendship.By applying Scripture and Christian Father’s like Ambrose and Augustine, Aelred argues that true friendship is the greatest good that can be experienced on this earth, as it is a direct means to experiencing the love of God through a friend, with Christ gathered in their midst.
Spiritual Friendship as Spiritual Formation
Furthermore, spiritual friendships bound by the love of Christ become a powerful source for spiritual formation, climaxing in the love and knowledge of God.Much of Aelred’s thought falls in line with the threefold way of ancient spiritual formation practices: The Via Purgativa, a self-examination to purge evil from one’s life through ascetic practices; the Via Illuminativa, an enlightenment of one’s mind with the goodness of God’s light; and the Via Unitiva, when one’s life is directly aligned with God in perfect union.Coincidentally, Aelred uses a similar threefold movement called “The Threefold Kiss” to illustrate the progression through three stages of spiritual friendship: the carnal kiss, the spiritual kiss, and the intellectual kiss.Aelred’s threefold kiss metaphoris vastly comparable with the threefold way of spiritual formation. First, the carnal kiss is a metaphor for the physical sanctifying experience of friendship, comparative with the Via Purgativa (the way of purgation). Second, the spiritual kiss is a metaphor for the intermingling of friends’ spirits, granting them a glimpse of Christ through their friendship—similar to the Via Illuminativa (the way of illumination). Lastly, the intellectual kiss is when one’s spirit intimately embraces God’s own, reflecting the Via Unitiva (the way of union).
Moving forward, I will summarize Aelred’s treatise within his threefold kiss framework to illustrate how the dimensions of spiritual friendship align with the threefold way as a viable means to spiritual formation. Before addressing the first stage of spiritual friendship’s formational implications, Aelred starts with this precedent: True friendship always begins with love for God.
 It would be easy to categorize friendship as a communal or corporate discipline, since it directly pertains to the relationships between the members of Christ’s body. Guidance, for example, is a classical corporate discipline that aids individuals in discerning the voice of God. However, quickly dismissing friendship as a corporate discipline skims over the personal formation implications of the individual through his or her friendships with other believers
Aelred’s optimism towards friendship was rather unorthodox. His stance on friendship was held by only a minority of monastics at the time. Many monastic traditions following him wrote off friendship as a viable means to spiritual formation due to the fear of cliques and disrupting the community through the inevitable strife of human relationships. This unfortunately led to the disregard of spiritual friendship for almost a millennia (see Edgar, God Is Friendship, 81). However, a reconsideration of Aelred’s work is of utmost importance for a culture yearning for deeper spiritual formation.