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Aelred of Rievaulx
(1110 - 1167)
How good, how delightful it is to live as brothers together!
--Ps 133:1 NJB
Although St. Aelred lived a millennium ago, his life and writings have a distinctively contemporary feel. An extremely competent administrator of Rievaulx, a vast Yorkshire abbey in Northern England, yet even more a spiritual father to hundreds of men, had we met Aelred we would identify him with Pope John XXIII or Carlo Martini, the archbishop of Milan, Italy. Like these beloved shepherds of the modern church, Aelred loved his flock and was much loved in return. As I was walking around the cloisters, he said, all the brothers were sitting together. And in the whole throng I could not find one whom I did not love and by whom I was not loved.
As a writer, too, Aelred seems to address our modern concerns and sensibilities. In his teaching that the interior life is communal--that we move from self and sin to find God in community--we might imagine we are hearing Henri J. M. Nouwen or Dorothy Day. Consider, for example, Aelred's reflections on how spiritual friendship leads us to Christ:
It is no small consolation in this life to have someone who can unite with you in 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.
From 1147 to 1167, Aelred governed 150 choir monks and 500 lay brothers at the Cistercian abbey at Rievaulx. He ruled firmly, but with kindness. In two decades he did not dismiss even one person from the monastery. Although constantly suffering from kidney stones, Aelred visited many other abbeys, extending his gentle influence throughout western monasticism. Encouraged by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, he wrote numerous books, including The Mirror of Charity and On Spiritual Friendship. For the last four years of his life, illness confined him to a cell attached to the abbey where small groups of monks daily sought his counsel. He died on January 12, 1167.
I shall no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know the master's business. I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father. You did not choose me, no I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last . . . My command to you is to love one another. --Jn 15:15-17 NJB
January 12 / Go to Thomas Becket. / Go back to Hildegard of Bingen.
2 Agnes (d. 304?)
"A new kind of martyrdom!" exclaimed St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan. The assembly cheered and applauded. He was celebrating St. Agnes because she was a virgin, a martyr--and a child. She was executed at Rome in 304 during the Emperor Diocletian's vicious persecution. Here are Ambrose's observations on her death:
St. Agnes is said to have suffered martyrdom at age twelve. The cruelty that did not spare so young a child was hateful, but the power of faith in the child was greater. Was there room for a wound in that small body? The sword could barely strike her, yet she had the inner strength to strike back. Girls of her age usually can't even bear a parent's angry glance. They cry at needles' pricks as though they were wounds. Agnes, however, faced her persecutors fearlessly. When they attempted to force her to worship at the pagan altars, she stretched out her hands and made the sign of the cross over the sacrificial fires. She was not fazed by the heavy weight of the chains they wrapped around her. And she freely offered her body to the executioner's sword.
The executioner used both threats and allurements to try to change her mind. He encouraged young men to beg her to marry them. But she answered, "I already have a spouse, and I will not offend him by pretending that another might please me. I will give myself only to him who first chose me. So, executioner, what are you waiting for? Destroy this body that unwanted eyes desire."
Agnes stood and prayed. Then she bent down her neck. The executioner trembled as though he himself had been condemned. His right hand shook and his face grew pale, but the virgin showed no fear at all.
So in one victim we have a twofold martyrdom of purity and faith, for Agnes both remained a virgin and also obtained martyrdom.
Historians say that legends have embroidered the few facts we know about Agnes. But the stories are rooted in actual events and convey kernels of truth about her. These legends tell that Agnes was a beautiful and soon-to-be-marriageable young woman. Many eager young men pursued her, but she rebuffed them because she had consecrated her virginity to Christ.
One spurned suitor took revenge by reporting to the authorities that Agnes was a Christian. She was brought before a judge who tried to persuade her to recant. He threatened her with fire and torture, but she did not flinch. Then he had her stripped at a brothel and urged young men to seduce her. "You may stain your sword with my blood," she said, "but you will never profane my body that I have consecrated to Christ." All were so stunned by her presence that only one boy tried to touch her. Legend says he was struck blind, and that Agnes healed him.
Exasperated and egged on by her first accuser, the governor ordered her execution. Agnes was taken to the Stadium of Domitian, where she courageously faced a nervous soldier who hacked her to death with his sword. Over the centuries the little virgin martyr became one of the most popular saints in Christian history.
St. Agnes's death was "a new kind of martyrdom!" She taught us adults the meaning of valor while she was still a child. Agnes hurried to the place of her execution more joyfully than a bride goes to her wedding. And she was adorned not with plaited hair, but with Christ himself.
January 21 / Patron of girls. / Go to Eulalia of Merida. / Go back to George of Lydda.
From the Hardcover edition.