Cry out with joy to God, all the earth: serve the Lord with gladness.
Year: C(I). Psalm week: 4. Liturgical Colour: Green.
Friendship: the love that dare not speak its name
Today the Office of Readings contains a passage from St Aelred of Rievaulx on friendship.
Once upon a time, there was friendship. Once upon a time, society accepted that the love of friends could be the single most important thing in a person’s life, and they did more than just accept, they celebrated the fact. Throughout history, discourses and sermons have been written in praise of friendship. When Alfred Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam died tragically young in 1833, he spent the next seventeen years writing the great poem “In Memoriam” as a memorial to his friend; and Hallam is a first name used among the Tennyson family to this day. Looking further back, we can see Damon and Pythias, Pylades and Orestes, David and Jonathan...
Perhaps the change was the fault of Freud and Oscar Wilde; and then again, perhaps not. But today no love is accepted as valid that is not in some way sexual, and even if we set out to reject the sex-obsessed outlook of today’s society, we think in those terms despite ourselves. When St Aelred writes of “this most loving youth”, we all say to ourselves “oh yes” in a knowing way, sure that we have guessed the smutty truth.
What a waste! What a wicked denial and perversion of love! God has made friendship – did not Christ have his own beloved disciple? – and how dare we corrupt it and deny it! Of course, we must not despise sex: sex is holy, divinely ordained as a way of love and procreation – but it is not the only love. Friendship is not “mere” friendship, not a second-best; still less is it a repressed substitute for erotic love. It is a love in its own right, powerful, holy, overwhelming. A world with Eros but without friendship is a world full of isolated, self-obsessed couples, of love unshared – a sad thing indeed. And we are heading that way.
The denial of friendship is an evil thing and evil in its effects. When my pulse beats faster at the sight of my friend, when his presence feels like a bolt of electricity – is this really sex in disguise? Am I to run away – which would be a tragedy – in order to preserve my chastity, or am I to try to overcome my revulsion and make a pass – which would be worse? Modern society seems to give us nothing but this harsh choice between a cold heart and a hot body. Who knows how many of the impressionable young are led into ultimately unendurable vices precisely because they cannot face what seems the only available alternative? And when, as is inevitable, they have destroyed friendship by turning it into something it is not, what choice do we give them but to repeat the error, each time more desperately? As if one could see the stars by diving ever deeper into the mud!
Let us accept friendship. Let us accept it as a true and passionate gift of God. Let us accept it in others without reading anything else into it – “repressed” or not. Let us rejoice if it is given to us, be glad if it is given to others. Jonathan loved David not because of what he could get out of him, but because he was David: let us celebrate this motiveless love of the Other, an echo of the pure love of Heaven. We ought to love everyone like that: but one should at least start somewhere.
And if, like Aelred, we have made the mistake of seeking a physical consummation of a love that does not require it, then let us, like St Aelred, not recoil from that love but go forward, transcend that error, until the love becomes a redeemed and radiant thing that others will see and rejoice, giving thanks to God.
About the author of the Second Reading in today's Office of Readings:
Second Reading: St Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 - 1167)
Aelred was born in Hexham in around 1109. His family was well connected and at an early age he was sent into the service of King David of Scotland. There he rose to the position of Master of the Royal Household. In time he became attracted to the religious life, but he was also much attached to the life he lived at court and to King David himself. It took a considerable personal struggle for him at the age of 24 to give up his secular pursuits and to enter the newly founded Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in Yorkshire in 1133. At 34 he moved from there and took charge of a new foundation in Lincolnshire. But within four years he had returned to Rievaulx as Abbot where he remained for the rest of his life. He died in 1167.
Aelred is remembered both for his energy and for his gentleness. His writings and his sermons were characterised by a deep love of the Scriptures and by a very personal love of Christ ‘as friend and Saviour’. He was sensitive and understanding in his dealings with his fellow monks and under his direction the monastery at Rievaulx grew to an extraordinary size. He did not enjoy robust health and the last ten years of his life were marked by a long and painful illness. His position as Abbot required him to travel on visitation to monasteries not only in England and Scotland but even in France, and the physical suffering and exhaustion which this incurred seems to have been considerable. A contemporary account of the last year of his life describes him as being left helpless on his bed unable to speak or move for an hour after celebrating his morning Mass.
Aelred was a singularly attractive figure, a man of great spiritual power but also of warm friendliness and humanity. He has been called the St Bernard of the North.
Liturgical colour: green
The theological virtue of hope is symbolized by the colour green, just as the burning fire of love is symbolized by red. Green is the colour of growing things, and hope, like them, is always new and always fresh. Liturgically, green is the colour of Ordinary Time, the orderly sequence of weeks through the year, a season in which we are being neither single-mindedly penitent (in purple) nor overwhelmingly joyful (in white).
|Mid-morning reading (Terce)||1 Corinthians 10:24,31 ©|
Nobody should be looking for his own advantage, but everybody for the other man’s. Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.
|Noon reading (Sext)||Colossians 3:17 ©|
Never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
|Afternoon reading (None)||Colossians 3:23-24 ©|
Whatever your work is, put your heart into it as if it were for the Lord and not for men, knowing that the Lord will repay you by making you his heirs. It is Christ the Lord that you are serving.