Saints at Heart: How Fault-Filled, Problem-Prone, Imperfect People Like Us Can Be Holy

Saints at Heart: How Fault-Filled, Problem-Prone, Imperfect People Like Us Can Be Holy

by Bert Ghezzi

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“You’re no saint!” is a familiar phrase, and one that nearly all of us probably believe accurately reflects our own hearts and lives. We assume that sanctity is reserved for an elite group of people who follow spiritual disciplines so difficult and impractical that no ordinary person could ever perform them. But best-selling author Bert Ghezzi

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“You’re no saint!” is a familiar phrase, and one that nearly all of us probably believe accurately reflects our own hearts and lives. We assume that sanctity is reserved for an elite group of people who follow spiritual disciplines so difficult and impractical that no ordinary person could ever perform them. But best-selling author Bert Ghezzi believes every one of us can be holy, and he shows us how in Saints at Heart. By pointing out that all the saints—even the apostles—were sinners, he helps us understand how holiness is not about being perfect, but rather about making a heartfelt decision to fall in love with God and put God first. Each of the 10 saints featured in this book illustrates a specific spiritual practice that can help us draw closer to God. St. Francis models lifelong conversion; Dorothy Day, prayer and the study of Scripture; and Pope John Paul II, evangelization. Every chapter ends with a section titled “Think, Pray, and Act,” which contains questions for reflection and application.

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Loyola Press
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Introduction: Matters of the Heart

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
—Matthew 6:21

In the past ten years, I have written about hundreds of saints and read about hundreds of others. I like to study their lives because I learn so much from their differences. For example, in Saints at Heart you will meet St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, two young saints whose lives were polar opposites. Thérèse, sick for the last few years of her life, lived a sheltered, reserved life in a convent, devoted to prayer and doing little things for others out of love. On the other hand, Pier Giorgio, vigorously healthy, lived an active life, expressing his love for Jesus in serving the poor while engaging in politics and enjoying his friends and sports. Thérèse taught me to always ask, “What is the loving thing to do now?” Pier Giorgio showed me how to live a faithful Christian life in the world with gusto. You will make similar comparisons as you read this book.
But I also like studying about saints because I learn so much from their similarities. Amid their vast diversity, one commonality stands out: they share the same heart—a heart set on loving God above all. The heart is that deep place at the core of our being where we make the choices that direct and orient our lives. At some point every one of the saints made a heartfelt decision to put God first in his or her life. St. Thérèse said it well: “I care about one thing only—to love You my Jesus!
This book is about drawing closer to God, and it is more about you and me than it is about the saints whose lives I describe. Holiness is not the narrowly guarded privilege of a few, but rather an abundantly available opportunity for all. Here’s the point: we can become saints if we want. All we must do is choose to be holy, and the Holy Spirit will make it happen. And because making us saints is God’s work, we don’t have to be without problems, faults, or even sins. All the saints, including the apostles, were sinners, just like you and me. For example, speaking about the apostles’ difficulties, Pope Benedict XVI said, “I find this very comforting, because we see that the saints have not ‘fallen from Heaven.’ They are people like us, who also have complicated problems.” 1
In Saints at Heart, you will read about ten ways of giving your heart more fully to God. St. Thérèse models for us the love of God, and St. Aelred, the love of others. We can advance in holiness by imitating St. Francis’s ongoing conversion and by responding to God’s call, as St. Katharine Drexel did. Four saints illustrate for us the key means of Christian growth: from Dorothy Day, we learn about prayer and study; from St. Angela Merici, fellowship with other Christians; from St. Roque González, social action; and from Pope John Paul II, evangelization. St. Jane de Chantal and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati show us how to persevere joyfully through life’s challenges. We will look at the lives of these women and men to see how we might respond to God’s grace more willingly and generously.
You will find a set of interactive questions at the end of each chapter titled “Think, Pray, and Act.” I designed them to help you reflect on the message of the saint’s life and decide how you might apply it to your own. These can prove helpful or they can be frustrating to you. Although an action is suggested in each chapter, you will become discouraged quickly if you attempt to add too many new practices to your routine. Better to select just one easy-to-implement but significant activity. I suggest that you consider starting with the questions in the chapters “Loving God” or “Prayer and Study,” either of which are good places to begin advancing further on the road to holiness.
So please don’t let my book get in the way of your spiritual growth by giving you too many things to do. Holiness does not come from staying busy with Christian activities. It is a matter of the heart, a matter of falling in love with God. “Let yourselves be charmed by Christ the Infinite,” said Pope John Paul II,
who appeared among you in visible and imitable form. Let yourselves be attracted by his example, which has changed the history of the world and directed it toward an exhilarating goal. Let yourselves be loved by the Love of the Holy Spirit, who wishes to turn you away from worldly things to begin in you the life of the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and true holiness (cf. Ephesians 4:24). Fall in love with Jesus Christ, to live his very life, so that our world may have life in the light of the gospel.2
Additional Online Reader Resources:
In Saints at Heart, I’ve focused on ten key spiritual themes as reflected upon by the lives, examples, and writings of ten inspiring men and women saints and teachers of the Roman Catholic tradition. Of course, through the centuries, these themes have also been written about by many other extraordinary holy men and women of the faith.
You will find at the end of each chapter, a link my publisher has provided that will take you to a Webpage that offers more classic wisdom from Thomas à Kempis, John Henry Newman, St. Paul, Francis de Sales and others.
Go to to read more on each theme.


Loving God: Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897)

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
—Deuteronomy 6:5 (NAB)

If you are like me, you have great aspirations, expecting to achieve the best life has to offer. But these expectations seem to get buried beneath the barrage of our daily, mundane obligations. Urgent matters always displace the important ones. However, if we set our hearts on our goals, our everyday activities can become the means of attaining them.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux claimed that at age three she had declared her life goal: “I want to be a saint!” Perhaps her adult memory adjusted the facts of her childhood, but there’s no question that by the time she was a teen, she had decided on holiness. So throughout her short life she put loving God above all, and her commitment to holiness transformed all of her daily activities into means to that end.
In nine years as a Carmelite nun, Thérèse loved God in the pursuit of her ordinary duties. With God first in her thoughts, she swept the choir loft, washed clothes, folded altar linens, escorted elderly nuns about the convent, and cut up food for a sister who had difficulty eating. Unlike other great saints, she did nothing noteworthy. She did not found an order, build a hospital, or convert an aboriginal tribe. “Though the little Sister is very good,” said one of her sisters, “she has never done anything worth speaking about.” 1 But doing everything with love was enough to make her a saint—and a great one at that.
What does a nineteenth-century saintly nun who lived a sheltered life have to do with you and me? We live in a very different world that seems to spin faster every day. While juggling the duties of family, work, or school, navigating the freeways, and keeping up with the electronic world of email and blogs, we don’t really have time for pursuing holiness, do we? But that’s where Thérèse sets the example for us. Holiness is for everyone, not just cloistered religious. In a letter to a cousin who was about to marry, Thérèse wrote, “We all take a different road, but each one leads to the same goal. You and I must have a single aim—to grow in holiness while following the way God in his goodness has laid down for us.” 2
If we set our sights on loving God above all, then every action in the cascade of our daily activities can be an effective means to holiness. With St. Thérèse of Lisieux we should all decide to become saints and let the love of God make it happen.
When I first read an early translation of St. Thérèse’s autobiography I didn’t like it very much. Her prose ran thick with overspiritual expressions that seemed too syrupy for my taste, and as a result I found it hard to relate to her. However, a few years ago I found a more contemporary version by John Beevers,3 which appealed to me. He had stripped the book of its cloying sweetness, letting Thérèse speak in a simpler and more direct way. Beevers claims that Pauline, her older sister, ruined the original manuscript by adding adjectives, adverbs, and phrases that obscured the forcefulness of Thérèse’s writing. He says that Pauline had made about seven thousand such changes,4 some of which he fixed and so made the book more accessible to twenty-first-century readers.
Thérèse’s popularity has not waned since she burst on the scene at the turn of the twentieth century. It has only increased as more people discover the breadth and depth of her spirituality. Contemporary readers of her story, like me, appreciate her as a truly modern saint, who blended the best of traditional piety with twentieth- and twenty-first-century spiritual disciplines, which she anticipated. I have in mind her forward-looking approach to Scripture, her observance of the liturgical year, her use of meditative prayer, and her refreshing disdain for self-imposed mortification.

Thérèse was born to Louis and Zélie Martin on January 2, 1873, at Alençon, a small town in northern France. Louis worked as a watchmaker and jeweler, and Zélie as a lacemaker, so the family was moderately well-to-do. The Martin’s four older daughters—Marie, Pauline, Léonie, and Céline—doted on their baby sister. As a child Thérèse already showed the intelligence, joy, spunk, and strong will that marked her adult character. At the age of four, for instance, she wrote a note to one of Pauline’s friends celebrating her enjoyment of the family. Pauline, she wrote, “wants me to tell you that I’m a lazy little girl, but this isn’t true because I work all day long playing tricks on my poor little sisters.” 5 In her autobiography, Thérèse told of a childhood experience with Léonie and Céline that revealed her innate capacity for total commitment:

One day Léonie, no doubt thinking she was too old to play with dolls, came to us both with a basket filled with their clothes, ribbons, and other odds and ends. Her own doll was on top. She said: “Here you are, darlings. Take what you want.” Céline took a little bundle of silk braid. I thought for a moment, then stretched out my hand and declared “I choose everything.” And without much more ado, I carried off the lot.6

Thérèse observed that this incident summed up her whole life. She said that later when she understood the call to holiness, she exclaimed, “My God, I choose all. I do not want to be a saint by halves.”
As well-formed Catholics with a solid understanding of doctrine and practice, Louis and Zélie ran their family as a training school for their daughters. The Martins centered their life on God and the church. They worshipped at Mass on Sundays and frequently on weekdays. In the evenings they enjoyed games and storytelling and then joined together in prayer. Together, they also read and discussed Scripture and books such as The Liturgical Year. Louis paid special attention to forming his youngest daughter. Often in the late afternoon he took Thérèse for walks to nearby churches, where at prayer before the tabernacle she acquired a devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist. As an adult she recalled having accompanied her father on fishing trips, during which she accidentally stumbled upon meditative prayer. “Sometimes I tried to fish with my own little rod,” she wrote, “but I preferred to sit amidst the grass and flowers. I thought deeply then and, although I was quite ignorant about meditation, my soul did plunge into a state of real prayer.” 7 Thus, the Martin family life planted the seeds of holiness in Thérèse.
Zélie died of cancer in 1877, bringing an end to Thérèse’s bright early childhood. She comforted herself by adopting Pauline as her “little Mother.” Louis moved the family to Lisieux in order to be near the supportive family of Zélie’s brother. During these difficult transitions, Thérèse became melancholy and began to suffer a variety of nervous ailments, which lasted for several years.
When Thérèse was nine, Pauline entered the Carmelite convent at Lisieux. For several months Thérèse reacted to the loss of her second mother with headaches, insomnia, hypersensitivity, and bouts of weeping. Visits to Pauline failed to console her. Temporary relief came one day when her sisters knelt before a statue of Mary and asked her to intercede for Thérèse’s healing. She reported in her autobiography that Mary smiled at her through the statue and delivered her from her pain.8 But the ailments soon returned. Even the joy Thérèse experienced at her first communion and confirmation did not dispel them. Extreme sensitivity, loneliness, and mind-numbing attacks of scruples continued to plague her.
A life-changing event occurred on Christmas morning in 1886 that finally brought Thérèse deliverance from these terrible problems. She had prayed for a miracle to bring her peace, freedom, and strength to resist her hypersensitivity. And just after midnight Mass she received it. “Jesus, the Child then only an hour old,” she said,

flooded the darkness of my soul with torrents of light. By becoming weak and frail for me, He gave me strength and courage. He clothed me with His weapons, and from that blessed night I was unconquerable. I went from victory to victory and began to run as a giant.9

At home after Mass, Thérèse overheard her father snap that he was glad it was the last time they would have to endure the family ritual of surprising her with gifts. She handled this emotionally fraught episode with unusual composure, which assured her that the miracle was genuine.
Thérèse regarded this event as closing her childhood and opening her life as an adult. Years later she recalled how the miracle gave her a heart for the conversion of sinners:

Jesus . . . accomplished in an instant what I had been unable to do in ten years. Like the apostles, we could say: “Master, I have toiled all the night, and caught nothing.” Jesus was more merciful to me than to His disciples. He Himself took the net, cast it, and drew it up full of fishes. He made me a fisher of men. I longed to work for the conversion of sinners with a passion I’d never felt before. Love filled my heart, I forgot myself and henceforth I was happy.10

This experience launched Thérèse’s lifelong practice of interceding for serious wrongdoers.
In her fourteenth year, Thérèse heard God calling her to enter the Carmelite convent at Lisieux—and she became determined to do so by Christmas 1887, just before her fifteenth birthday. Her father gave his permission, but the superior at Carmel refused to consider her for admission until she was at least sixteen. Thérèse and her father appealed to the local bishop, but he sided with the superior, telling her that she was too young to become a nun. “I’ve longed to give myself to God ever since I was three,” 11 objected Thérèse, but the bishop held his ground.
Thérèse was disappointed but not deterred. On a pilgrimage to Rome a few weeks later, she boldly asked Pope Leo XIII at a papal audience to let her enter Carmel at fifteen. The pope told her to obey the local authorities. “You will enter,” he said, “if God wills.” 12
Deeply distressed but at peace beneath the surface of her feelings, Thérèse entrusted to Jesus her campaign to become a Carmelite. But he seemed to ignore her request. Thérèse had often imagined herself as a little ball that the Child Jesus could play with and treat any way he wanted. “I longed to amuse the little Jesus and offer myself to his childish whims.” When the pope denied her at Rome, she felt as though Jesus had pierced his toy to see what was inside, and then let it drop and went to sleep.13
However, Thérèse did not stop expecting God to intervene on her behalf. And finally the obstacles began to fall away. Just after Christmas, perhaps influenced by his vicar-general, who had promised Thérèse that he would intercede for her, the bishop changed his mind and gave permission for her to enter Carmel immediately. But the Carmelite superior tested Thérèse’s endurance further by holding off her admission until after Easter 1888.
On April 9, 1888, Thérèse Martin disappeared into the Carmel at Lisieux and as Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus began her nine undistinguished years as a nun. She served as assistant novice master for three years, but that was the only office she held in the Carmelite community. Her charism was simply loving God above all. “Now I wish for only one thing,” she once wrote, “to love Jesus unto folly!” 14
Thérèse did not set out to develop a method for holiness. If she had foreseen that one day Pope John Paul II would declare her a doctor of the church, she would have wondered why and may even have laughed at the apparent incongruity of the idea. She would have been uncomfortable to be universally recognized as a spiritual guide. “Jesus has no need of books or doctors of the Church to guide souls,” she wrote. He, the Doctor of doctors,

can teach without words. I have never heard Him speak, but I know that He is within me. He guides and inspires me every moment of the day. Just when I need it, a new light shines on my problems. This happens not so much during my hours of prayer as when I’m busy with my daily work.15

As a teen, Thérèse had devoured The Imitation of Christ and the works of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and many other spiritual writers. However, in the sunset of her life, she grew tired of spiritual treatises that said perfection was hard to attain. Once she said, “I shut the learned book which is giving me a headache and drying up my heart, and I open the holy Scriptures. Then everything seems clear; one word opens up infinite horizons, perfection seems easy. I see that it is sufficient to abandon myself like a child in God’s arms.” 16 Apparently Thérèse enjoyed a form of Scripture meditation that twenty-first-century Catholics still find attractive and practical.
Those of us who have difficulties with prayer can appreciate Thérèse’s candid admission that she often fell asleep while meditating. Since I frequently nod off during my morning prayer, I am heartened by her observation that God, like any good parent, loves his children dearly whether they are asleep or awake.17 Thérèse also endured long stretches of dryness, but instead of worrying about it, she delighted in it. She envisioned that in times of spiritual aridity, Jesus was “asleep in her little boat.” Instead of shaking him awake as others did, she let him sleep peacefully, as she thought that he must be wearied by all he has to do for us. Imagining that her dryness afforded Jesus much- needed rest pleased her.18 I plan to imitate her approach the next time my prayer gets dry.
Thérèse did not believe in using penitential practices except the fasting required in the Carmelite rule. She especially advised against using “instruments of penance” to discipline the body. She argued that Jesus said his yoke was easy and his burden light. He did not tell us to burden ourselves with extra weight.19 I find her view comforting, because I, like many contemporaries, believe that enough suffering comes our way daily that we don’t need to impose additional bodily pain on ourselves. Thérèse said that her real penance was breaking her self-love by serving others when she did not feel like it and doing little kindnesses that went unnoticed. I don’t find this perspective on mortification very comforting; it hurts to chisel away at my self-will with unselfish acts.
While Thérèse used spiritual disciplines, she did not view them as causes of perfection. “Holiness,” she said, “does not consist of any one particular method of spirituality: it is a disposition of heart which makes us small and humble within the arms of God, aware of our weakness but almost rashly confident in His fatherly goodness.” 20 Committed from childhood to become a saint, she had always sought perfection. But toward the end of her life, she realized that the harder she ran after it, the further away it seemed to be. She came to embrace her imperfections and even to relish them. She once assured a novice at Carmel not to worry about her faults because God was blind to arithmetic. “Were He clear-sighted enough to see all our sins, if He were good enough at figures to be able to total up their number, He would send us straight back to our nothingness. But His love for us makes Him blind.” 21

Thérèse was convinced that God had called her to be a saint. However, when she compared herself to the saints, she felt like a grain of sand in the presence of mountains reaching into the clouds. She decided that God knew of her littleness and would provide her a “little way” to get to heaven. Observing that in some mansions you could take an elevator instead of climbing stairs, Thérèse determined to find an elevator that would carry her to Jesus, “because I was far too small to climb the stairs of perfection.” She searched the Bible and found her elevator in Proverbs 9:4: “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me” and Isaiah 66:12–13: “You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees.” The arms of Jesus would be the elevator that would carry her to heaven. “And so there is no need for me to grow up,” she said. “In fact just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less.” 22
Total reliance on Jesus constituted the heart of Thérèse’s “little way.” Then, resting comfortably in his arms, anyone could become holy by doing ordinary things for love. “The most trivial act,” she said,

one that no one knows about, provided it is inspired by love, is often of greater worth than the greatest achievement. It is not the value or even the apparent holiness of deeds which counts, but only the love put into them. And no one can say that he cannot do these little things for God, for everyone is capable of them.23

Thérèse herself aspired to achieve great things for love of God. She wished she could be a missionary who evangelized the whole world. She also wanted to be a martyr who suffered every torment endured by those who had given their life for Christ. But she decided that she was too little and too weak for such greatness. Instead of settling for a lesser vocation, she chose a calling even higher than foreign missions or martyrdom. She chose to do everything with love and so become a channel of grace for others. “I care now about one thing only,” she wrote, “to love You, my Jesus! . . . The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least of actions for love.” 24 She believed that Christ would use the graces released by her little sacrifices to strengthen the church and bring relief to those who suffered.
Thérèse wrote this summary of her life’s mission shortly before her death. She contracted tuberculosis during Holy Week in 1896. For the next year and a half she endured severe physical pain and spiritual agony. She died on September 30, 1897, a nun who had been enclosed for nine years in an obscure Carmelite convent. But popular devotion to Thérèse spread rapidly soon after her death, due both to the publication and widespread circulation of her autobiography and to grace.
So many thousands testified to miracles won through her intercession that authorities in the Vatican hastened her canonization. Pope Pius XI declared her a saint in 1925. And from her home in heaven, she achieved one of her deepest longings. In 1927 the pope declared her, along with St. Francis Xavier, a principal patron of all missionaries.

Go to to see what Thomas à Kempis has to say on the theme of Loving God.

Think, Pray, and Act Few of us will become great missionaries or martyrs. But all of us can embrace the higher calling of loving God above all and imitating Thérèse’s practice of letting that love direct all of our actions. Then our lives, too, will become channels of grace, supporting others on their journey to God.
Take stock of your life to determine how you might adopt the principles of St. Thérèse’s “little way.” Use the following questions to help you consider how to love God more and do even the most trivial things for love.

Think How much do I love God? How would I describe my relationship with him?
How often do I perform little acts of kindness without expecting any thanks or notice?

Pray Set aside a half hour of quiet prayer and reflect on the following questions:
Do I put God first in my life? If not, what occupies first place in my mind and heart?
What difference would it make for my life if I decided that I wanted to become a saint?

Act What one action could I take that would increase my love for God?
Select one person in your set of closest relationships. For two weeks, pray for that person daily and perform small acts of service for him or her each day. At the end of the two weeks, take time to reflect on what you learned from the experience.


Loving Others: Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (1100–1167)

Love one another, as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.
—John 15:12–13

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote

To paraphrase an ancient proverb, the proof of the Christian life is in the living. Surveying our church-related activities may persuade us that we are doing OK. We may be attending Sunday worship, putting some money in the collection, spending time in personal prayer each day, saying grace before and after meals, attending a Bible study, or volunteering in a ministry.
But the real test of our Christianity looks behind these pursuits and goes deeper. To assess how well we are doing we must ask a question that comes with the highest authority: Am I loving others as Jesus commanded? That question embraces many people: Am I loving my family? My neighbors? My friends? My companions at church? My coworkers or fellow students? My enemies? (Don’t pretend that you don’t have any—how about the last guy who cut you off in traffic?) And the question involves many behaviors: Am I being kind? Putting up with people’s quirks? Forgiving offenses? Giving encouragement? Supplying needs? If we aren’t loving others in these ways and think we are loving God, we are fooling ourselves. “No one who fails to love the brother whom he can see,” said St. John, “can love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
All saints model the love of others for us. Even the solitaries in the desert maintained healthy relationships. But for me, St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth-century abbot, stands out as an exemplar of Christian charity and friendship. When I encountered him a decade ago while researching a book on the saints, I fell in love with him. My four sons—John, Paul, Stephen, and Peter—all rejoice that I named them before I met Aelred (just as my three daughters celebrate that they were born before I met St. Lutgarde, another twelfth-century favorite of mine). Although Aelred lived and wrote nearly 900 years ago, under circumstances that were very different from ours, his example and his teaching on charity and friendship still seem fresh today.

Aelred was born in 1110 to a priest and his wife at Hexam in northern England. (A married clergy was still allowed then, but the practice was on its way out.) Home-schooled by a local priest and an uncle, Aelred received a solid education, including Latin language and literature. His aristocratic family had ties to the kings of England and Scotland. Those relationships may account for an opportunity that came to him when he was fifteen. He was sent to live in the court of King St. David I of Scotland (ca. 1085–1153), the son of St. Margaret (1045–1093). There Aelred’s innate friendliness charmed everyone, and he formed lifelong friendships with Henry, the heir to the throne, with the king’s stepsons Simon and Waldef, and with King David himself.
Aelred lived for nine years in the Scottish court. The king recognized his gifts and appointed him in his late teens as a steward over household details, including the kitchen. Aelred absorbed the courtly culture, acquiring diplomatic skills that would serve him well in later life. However, in his early twenties he grew increasingly discouraged with the shallowness of his associations at court. He realized that he had many gifts, but did not know how he was supposed to use them. So he worried especially over his lack of a clear vocation.1
In 1134 in this conflicted state of mind, Aelred went on a mission for the king to Archbishop Thurston of York. On his return he stayed with Walter Espec at his castle at Helmsley. Two years before, Archbishop Thurston and Espec, a powerful northern lord, had founded the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in the Yorkshire forest near the castle. St. Bernard (ca. 1090–1153) had sent a small contingency of monks from Clairvaux in Burgundy to start the community.2 Conversations about the monastery piqued Aelred’s curiosity, so he visited Rievaulx and was moved by the fervor of the monks. Instead of heading home the next day as planned, he headed for Rievaulx and presented himself for membership in the community. He believed he had found the calling that would give him the life direction for which he had longed.
Don’t imagine early Rievaulx as a set of elaborate buildings fabricated of stone, mahogany panels, and bronze fixtures. Picture rather a cluster of rough hewn huts on hardscrabble land in the Yorkshire wilds. Picture, too, how difficult it must have been for the refined, slightly built aristocrat to adjust to the heavy work of cultivating the fields. Although he cheerfully joined the worship and work of his brothers, demons of confusion still tormented the young monk. To overcome temptations and to focus his spirit on his calling, Aelred often prayed while immersed in a pool of icy water.3 Devotees of the twenty-first-century Celtic revival have conveniently overlooked that frigid practice, which was common among twelfth-century monks. This and other severe mortifications weakened Aelred’s already frail body and contributed to the illnesses that plagued him in later life.
Aelred’s considerable gifts did not go unnoticed. The abbot confided in him and consulted him on pastoral matters. In 1142 he placed Aelred on a team sent to Rome to protest the choice of William Fitzherbert as Archbishop of York. His diplomatic skills contributed to the success of the intervention, but the real significance of the Rome visit occurred on the trek home. Aelred seized the chance to visit Clairvaux, where he met and became a friend of Bernard, who took note of his thoughtfulness and potential as a writer. Upon Aelred’s return to Rievaulx, the abbot appointed him master of novices, an office he pursued with obvious affection and compassion for his younger brothers. He formed them with talks that summed up what he had learned about living as a monk. He kept his notes, which soon became a valuable resource for his writing. In 1143 Bernard sent a letter to Aelred directing him to write a book of his reflections on community life under the title The Mirror of Charity. Aelred objected that he had come from the kitchen, not the schools, but Bernard insisted that his stewardship over earthly food was the training for his calling to provide spiritual food in books.4
At Bernard’s request, in The Mirror of Charity Aelred defended the strict observance of fasting and mortification required of Cistercian monks, many of whom felt they could not endure its burden. Although the book is a treatise about monastic discipline, it still contains timeless practical wisdom for all Christians. In the mirror of Scripture, says Aelred, we can see Christ’s generous love of God that drove him to the cross. In that same mirror we can also behold our sinfulness, which we can renounce by loving God generously.5 When we are freed from dependence on sin, we are enabled to love our neighbors well. Some people, Aelred says, we will love easily, because we are attracted to them, but in these cases we must guard against loving them either in excess or for selfish motives. And we must choose by force of will and God’s grace to love others we don’t like and treat them kindly.6 Just as the monastery was a school of love for Aelred, the church community can be a school of love for us.
In 1143 the abbot sent Aelred to found the monastery of St. Laurence, at Revesby, near York, one of Rievaulx’s earliest daughter houses. He spent four years there as abbot, developing his pastoral skills. Then in 1147 he returned to Rievaulx as abbot, where he served his brothers well for twenty years.
Aelred ruled the men of Rievaulx with great gentleness. His earlier experience as novice master made him compassionate toward the monks and sensitive to the challenges of their day-to-day lives. His natural winsomeness attracted men to the community and assured all of his care for them. Once he wrote a Pastoral Prayer to keep him focused on exercising his leadership with Christlike humility. “You know my heart, Lord,” he wrote,

and that whatsoever you have given to me, your servant, I desire to offer wholly to [my brothers] and to consume it all in their service. . . . My senses and my speech, my leisure and my labor, my acts and my thoughts, my good fortune and bad, my health and sickness, my life and death, all my stock in the world, may it by used up in their interest for whom you did not refuse to be consumed yourself. . . . Grant to me, Lord, by your indescribable grace to bear their infirmities with patient, tender, helpful compassion. May I learn by the teaching of your Spirit to console the sorrowful, to strengthen the fainthearted, to put the fallen on their feet, to calm the restless, to cherish the sick, conforming myself to each one’s character and capacity. . . . You know, sweet Lord, how much I love them and how my heart goes out to them in tenderest affection, . . . that I yearn rather to help them in charity than to rule them.7

Aelred’s prayer remains evergreen, one that all leaders—dads, moms, pastors, bosses, politicians—should pray daily.
As abbot, Aelred behaved as he prayed he would. He tempered the harshness of his monks’ routines by encouraging them to develop relationships and allowing them to express signs of affection, such as manly hugs. Unlike other medieval abbots, who discharged monks for minor infractions of the rule, Aelred did not dismiss a single monk in his twenty years as abbot.8 He governed with kindness, not laxity, and always found a way to help a troubled or troublesome brother. He regarded Rievaulx as a “community of love” and described it in a letter to his sister: “As I was walking round the cloisters, all the brothers sat together . . . and in the whole of that throng I could not find one whom I did not love, and by whom I was not loved.” 9
Under Aelred’s wise leadership, Rievaulx grew to include 150 choir monks and 500 brothers, who worked the fields and tended sheep. Aelred also supervised the establishment of numerous daughter houses, which he tried to visit annually. His achievements are all the more remarkable because he suffered constantly from kidney stones, dysentery, and arthritis. On one occasion, his biographer, Walter Daniel, came upon him bent over before the fireplace “like a leaf of parchment,” trying to alleviate his pain.10 After 1157 Aelred became so ill that he had to be excused from the monastery’s common activities. He had a little cell constructed near the infirmary, where he stayed most of the time. From his bed he conducted the abbey’s affairs and continued his care for his brothers. Twenty or thirty monks at a time crowded around him, some lying across his bed, listening to his teaching and chatting with him about all sorts of things.11

In 1164 Aelred resumed writing the book Spiritual Friendship, which he had begun around 1143 when he was abbot at Revesby. As a youth he had discovered Cicero’s treatise on friendship, and the Roman orator’s reflections had helped him sort out his boyish affections. Now in this book he adapted Cicero’s teaching by supporting it with Scripture. All human friendships, he said, had their source in God, who created human beings to share his love by loving him and each other.12 Paraphrasing St. John, he said, “He who abides in friendship abides in God, and God in him.” 13 But since friendship was a special form of love between two sinful people, Aelred repeated the cautions he had placed in The Mirror of Charity. Friendship entered for the wrong reasons, such as for vice or gain, deteriorated into a perverse love that Aelred called “cupidity,” which must be avoided.
However, Aelred said that when we take care to form a good friendship, one free of sin’s perversions, we will enjoy wonderful benefits:

It is no small consolation in this life to have someone you can unite within an intimate affection and the embrace of a holy love. Someone in whom your spirit can rest, to whom you can pour out your soul, to whose pleasant exchanges, as to soothing songs, you can fly in sorrow. To the dear breast of whose friendship, amidst the many troubles of the world, you can safely retire. A person who can shed tears with you in your worries, be happy with you when things go well, search out with you the answers to your problems, whom with the ties of charity you can lead into the depths of your heart. A person who, though absent in body, is yet present in spirit, where heart to heart you can talk to him, where the sweetness of the Spirit flows between you, where you so join yourself and cleave to him that soul mingles with soul and two become one.
And so praying to Christ for your friend, and longing to be heard by Christ for your friend’s sake, you reach out with devotion and desire to Christ himself. And suddenly and insensibly, as though touched by the gentleness of Christ close at hand, you begin to taste how sweet he is and to feel how lovely he is. Thus from that holy love with which you embrace your friend, you rise to that love by which you embrace Christ.14
Aelred wrote these words sometime in the year before his death on January 12, 1167. We can easily apply them as a eulogy to a saint who lived entirely for love and friendship.
Aelred’s life and message offer a medicine for our endemic social and spiritual ailments. He developed his teaching for twelfth-century monks who lived apart from the world, but it translates well to the experience of twenty-first-century laypeople who live smack in its midst. His take on Christian love and friendship, if we apply it, will cure our loneliness, our selfishness, and our shallow and sometimes sinful relationships.

Go to to see what St. John Baptist de la Salle has to say about the theme of Loving Others.

Think, Pray, and Act Take stock of your life to determine how you might adopt St. Aelred’s teaching on love and friendship. Use the following questions to help you consider how to love others more.

Think What is the status of the significant relationships in your life? What word would you use to describe them? Good? Just OK? Indifferent? Dysfunctional? Bad?
Make a list of the important relationships in your life, such as with your spouse, children, parents, close relatives, neighbors, parishioners, coworkers, or friends. Use one of the above words to characterize each relationship and explain why you chose that particular word.

Pray Spend a quiet half hour reflecting on Colossians 3:1–17. Read the selection several times. Which verse seems to speak most directly to you about your way of relating to others?
Ask the Holy Spirit to show you a way to respond to your conclusions about the message of Colossians 3:1–17 and the state of your relationships.

Act Select one person in your set of relationships with whom you have daily contact. For the next two weeks, pray each day for that person and perform little acts of kindness for him or her. At the end of the period, take some time to reflect on what the experience taught you about your relationships. (Yes, this is the same assignment you had in the last chapter, but it will help you form the habit of loving others more.)

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Meet the Author

Bert Ghezzi holds a PhD in history from the University of Notre Dame. He is a popular speaker and the author of many books, including Voices of the Saints and Mystics & Miracles. Bert currently serves as acquisitions editor for Our Sunday Visitor. He and his wife live in Winter Park, Florida.

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