First in a series of posts about ancestors of men-who-love-men.
Today is the feast of St. Aelred of Rievaulx, often referred to as the patron saint of friendships or the gay abbot of Rivevaulx. As an initiate of the Unnamed Path, and as a man-who-loves-men, St. Aelred is of particular interest to me because I believe him to be an ancestor of men-who-love-men. St. Aelred is also the patron saint of Integrity USA, an LGBT organization of the Episcopal Church.
Born in Hexham in the north of England in 1110, Aelred was of a family noted for their learning and ties to the nobility of the region. As a child, Aelred was educated in the court of King David I of Scotland; he later went on to serve as a steward of the king’s table where he was able to study works by Cicero and other classic philosophers. This, later on, had a profound influence on his writings.
At the age of twenty-four, Aelred left court life and entered the Cistercian Abbey at Rievaulx where he was elected Abbot in 1147. There, he was entrusted to ministering to the monks and brothers under his care. As abbot, he wrote some of the most notable works of medieval spirituality of the time. His writings were deeply influenced by the works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a fellow Cistercian monk (and soulmate of St. Malachy of Armagh), whose writings emphasized and expounded on the aspects and qualities of love. Aelred was declared a saint in 1476 with his feast day celebrated in January.
Aelred has been named “the gay abbot of Rievaulx,” although there are no overt sources that conclude he was homosexual in the modern sense of the word. In his biography of Aelred, Walter Daniel writes that Aelred was often seen holding hands — and did not mind the monks — openly displaying affections toward other brothers. In fact, it has been noted that Aelred was tolerant of such affections. Also, it is openly suspected that Aelred may have had sexual relations with another man while a steward in King David’s court, and that this liaison had a profound influence later on when he presided over Rievaulx.
One only has to look to Aelred’s relationship with Simon, a fellow monk, and his reaction to Simon’s death, to conclude that there may have been more than chaste, brotherly affection between the two men. In Mirror of Charity, Aelred describes his reaction to Simon’s death thus:
I remember that often when my eyes were darting here and there, at one glimpse of him I was filled with such shame that, suddenly recovering myself, I checked all that levity by the strength of his seriousness and, pulling myself together, I began to employ myself in something useful. The authority of our Order forbade conversation; his appearance spoke to me, his walk spoke to me, his very silence spoke to me. His appearance was modest, his walk mature, his speaking serious and his silence without bitterness.
Academics note that no matter how controlled or disciplined his writing, one cannot deny that it was difficult for Aelred to accept Simon’s distancing from him. In his personal writings, Aelred does not hide the fact that he appreciated Simon’s physical beauty. He asserts that he takes pleasure from stealing glances of him. The fact that he lived in a monastery where overt sexual relations where forbidden, does not preclude that intimate sexual relations did not take place between monks. Aelred was a man of his time, and as such, he lived and may have bent the rules imposed on him accordingly.
Further, of his many works, one that is most often quoted and discussed is his description of the spiritual friend — someone on “whose friendly bosom you can find peace…away from the noise of the world:”
It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love; in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness; in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two souls become one.
In the Unnamed Path, we celebrate and build relationships with ancestors of men-who-love-men. The terms gay, homosexual, or queer do not necessarily apply to men such as Aelred because these are modern terms used describe a sexual preference that was not recognized in Aelred’s time. Men — or, ancestors — such as Aelred had no notion of today’s use of the words gay or queer. Instead they lived according to the mores and social strictures of their time and engaged in sexual relations as their culture dictated.
As a Brother Initiate of the Unnamed Path, and a man-who-loves-men, St. Aelred is one of the ancestors I look to honor and build a relationship with. As a brother, it is important for me to work with ancestors such as St. Aelred in order to recover lost teachings and practices that may have been lost over time, or erased by established religion. Our ancestors are a unique energetic current that we draw upon as men-who-love-men and the ancestors willingly assist us in our spiritual evolution and practice. As practitioners, we honor our ancestors through direct contact, offerings on our altars — or as, in this case, writing about and remembering them.
In honor of St. Aelred, ancestor of men-who-love-men, I offer this prayer for his love, friendship, and benediction:
Most holy and dear St. Aelred, friend of God and lover of Christ; shower me with your loving presence. As abbot of Rievaulx, you doted over the brothers entrusted to your care; look after me as you looked after them. Extend your loving friendship and grant me respite from my loneliness, hardships, and sorrows. Grant me the love and spiritual friendship you shared with your brothers; lead me to other spiritual men that I may befriend them so I may share my love with other men who love men. Blessed be.