The Mirror of Charity

Rievaulx Abbey, in the moors of north Yorkshire in England, is a ruin – approachable only by tourists. Yet spiritually, it could still be visited, if one had scholarly patience and enthusiasm.

Would this be imaginable, however, even to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, most famous of Cistercian abbots? The story is told in the Life of Bernard of somewhat wild young knights who visited his monastery – in their twelfth-century European tour. They were received hospitably enough, but having taken their leave did not get far. For suddenly, they all decided to enlist in the fight against Satan, and turned back to Clairvaux (rather than proceeding to fight in Palestine).

Nine centuries have passed. The Order of Cîteaux perished, then modestly revived after the French Revolution. The adventure of “Common Cistercians” and Trappists continues in America and elsewhere. Into holy places the reader, having gone to sight-see, might conceivably disappear.

The Cistercians have a long record as the “Black Hole” of the Catholic Church. The order does what it can to support itself by agricultural and other industrious enterprises. It consists of friends, who disappear together into a contemplative void, from which sometimes emerge various branded cheeses, breads, beers – and dog treats, and inkjet cartridges. These product lines reflect the times.

The nuns are perhaps more numerous and noticeable than the monks, though with similar eccentricities. For they also do things unambiguously Christian, and a bit shocking – such as fast and pray. They, traditionally, stay out of the world.

For they have sworn to pass “through the narrowest gate, and up the steepest path” to the Kingdom of Heaven – Knights Templar, in their clambering fight.

The original Cistercians were, before they were martyrs, crusaders from the age of actual Crusades. They were consciously the flip side of that magnificent movement. They turned the outward battle seamlessly to the inward, and in their monastic retreats, fought as “bands of brothers,” and sisters, as if troops.

Saint Aelred, whose military training was acquired in the service of King David I, of Scotland, positively sings this message, in opposition to vanity, within Latin works we seldom read. His abbacy, when he took charge of Rievaulx, was spectacular – for he attracted many hundreds of monks and laymen to his cause, and was the mediaeval equivalent of a bestselling author.


Indeed still: for I have been reading The Mirror of Charity and Spiritual Friendship, in yesterday’s editions.

In one respect, the Middle Ages were no different from now. There was a majority of “believers,” as we would call them today, but few in any location utterly focused on God. Men arose among them, in the manner of Bernard and Aelred, as men continue to rise, in the manner of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien. These more recent “bestsellers” give the message of the Church, in her purity; making it fissile, or “weapons-grade.” They point, not to themselves, but to Christ the Commander.

The piety of the Cistercians was and is (where it survives) pure in its rejection of the pernicious and false ideas that were ever invading the public realm. They explained what martyrdom was, and that it was not, for instance: a death achieved while murdering Muslims reciprocally. They were eloquent on what free will and grace were not; and what they are, in Scripture.

I’ve been reading, or trying to read Saint Aelred, in the environment that I come out of. For the Speculum Caritatis (usually translated as Mirror of Charity), and the vexed business of his Spiritual Friendship, were attempts to do for his age what the pagan Cicero had done for his, but made Christian. There is difficulty, sometimes, in grasping this double remove.

The idea of a speculum is strange to us. It is a genre in the literary form of essay or homily, distributing light from multiple angles, like a shifting of views through a crystal. It confuses the modern because it is NOT whimsical; because, like philosophy, it does NOT stray. It portrays subtle aspects of the same thing, as does the eye that examines a work of sculpture.

The most recent edition of Aelred’s works – a collection of his Writings on Body and Soul, done in the Dunbarton Oaks Medieval series – begins with an announcement of “controversy.” Aelred was supposedly controversial, in his day, for the frank way he admitted his own sinfulness. He was quite aware that Saint Augustine also did this in the Confessions. I should think it is uncontroversial, that Christians start by condemning themselves.

Moving along the purgative, illuminative, and unitive, routes to Christian perfection, was at the heart of Aelred’s very orthodox teaching. The love, or “caritas” he preaches, is explicitly detached from the carnal and worldly. There is no place for “eros,” as it is known to Hollywood and pornography. It must simply be confessed, as Aelred himself confesses an attraction to some serving wench at the court of King David. He puts that life away.

There is not, incidentally, the tiniest speck of evidence that Aelred “was a gay.”

The union with God reaches outside time. It is specifically eternal, not temporal. The difference between agape (charity) and eros is stark, and in sanctity they are mutually exclusive. Temporal friendships that look toward this perfection are the opposite of indulgence in worldly pleasure. And like a good Cistercian, Aelred is allergic to frills and decoration. He is not, like a modern or a child, “easily bored.”

Aelred was, after all, known even in the twelfth century for his defense of the hard way: as a matter of choice or calling. He was for “living like a marine,” as we would say today. He recommended a comprehensive self-abnegation.

This old Cistercian spirit is being fully reversed. We have avowed Christians who claim Aelred as their patron, and celebrate his gay pioneering in the Spiritual Friendship, willfully misread. But we should read him, instead, to be freed from error.


*Image: Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, frontispiece of an 1845 edition of Lives of the English Saints by John Henry Newman [Encyclopedia Britannica]

You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s Thrift as a Christian Virtue

Brad Miner’s Every Man a Monk

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: