When did Ailred write his Mirror of Charity? Ailred himself tells us how he came to write it: Bernard of Clairvaux asked him to. Rievaulx was a foundation of Clairvaux and it’s first Abbot, William, was a monk of Clairvaux. The contact with Bernard was inevitable. The Bernard that Ailred knew was not the man revealed in through writings, but the impressive churchman he had met while on business for his Abbey in Rome. Bernard always made a strong impression, either as concerned pastor or opponent; he does not seem to have been capable of a neutral impression. Ailred found him to be sympathetic and supportive and Bernard recognized Ailred’s capabilities.
Unlike Bernard of Clairvaux–or Gregory Great centuries earlier–Ailred experienced no conflict between his contemplative calling and his duties, even his bureaucratic duties. It’s not as if he never felt fatigue; he was simply grasped by the continuity between reposing in God and laboring in God. Bernard (like Gregory the Great who provided the literary model for Bernard’s descriptions of this conflict) underlined the fleeting nature of communion with God and lamented that it was so. He would strip away everything that wasn’t God, if he could. Ailred, however, underlined that God was mediated through so much of human experience from fraternal service to friendship; I suspect this explains his varied metaphors and symbols. Bernard’s symbolic categories are precisely defined, systematic and comparatively limited. And I wonder whether Bernard recognized and admired in Ailred his ease in both prayer and duties; it would have seemed like an astounding integration of the two. It wasn’t necessarily that at all, but it could have amazed someone who presumed that they had to be in conflict.
Ailred had other conflicts that would have been less obvious to St. Bernard on the level of their meeting. Ailred had expended much energy during his novitiate in subduing his sexual instincts. Today we would place the accent on accepting sexuality as God’s gift and integrating it into a celibate and chaste life-style, channeling it into affective, rather than genital, expression. For Ailred, it was simply a bodily impulse to be subdued and controlled; somehow he managed not to strangle affectivity. Like St. Augustine before him, who wrestled with similar issues, Ailred could not live without friendship. This acknowledged need helped him to also recognize friendship as God’s gift and nurtured a natural warmth even as he established strong boundaries.
These conflicts are evident in the Mirror of Charity, if not always observed by modern readers. Perhaps it is the formal style, the biblical allusions, the less than spontaneous and considered expression, inevitable in a polished work intended for diffusion, that can keep us from noticing his urgency. It used to be presumed that Ailred composed this work while he was Novice Master. It is now considered to have been begun while he held that office and continued to be composed during his year (1143) as Abbot of Revesby, a foundation of Rievaulx. When books were “published” by diffusion and not printed by publishing houses, authors did not work under deadlines for editors. There would be no definitive edition of a single work. It could grow organically and be amended at will. Read through the Rule of St. Benedict, for example and try to answer the question: how many endings does it have? Or how many rules could it be divided into? One for small communities and another for large communities? This is the kind of composition we read in the Mirror of Charity.
What is clear is for whom it was written. Ailred is writing for privileged, young aristocrats who grew up thinking that were a cut above everyone else, could indulge themselves and didn’t have to face the consequences for their choices if they preferred not to. Until they came to the monastery. And, of course, Ailred will describe from the long-standing ascetical tradition, the armory of virtues now replacing their military armor, and the inner conflicts displacing their jousts and political conniving. It’s quite a come-down. Ailred underlines something else that’s very important: that as monks, these young men are confronted by the experience that in the monastery they feel so much more distant from God than when they were attracted to enter the monastery. What is happening?
Actually, something very important. Before they were moved by those emotional “highs” that we mistake for a direct experience of God. When the quality of Christian commitment and living concretely improves in the monastery, because they are facing their personal agenda, because they are “owning” their native conflicts, things are so much less pleasant. But God isn’t pleasure. They have to learn a whole new “vocabulary” for God. It is not an overwhelming good feeling that is God. God is God. We are human. In God’s gracious condescension, the experience of God is mediated through a variety of natural agents and human experience: through prayer, through sacraments, through struggles, through friendship and love, through suffering. And the key, the necessary key, is Jesus Christ, the mediator between divinity and humanity. For this to be more than an idea, a “head trip” the new-comer to the monastery needs to persevere to find a new orientation in a new way of living and perceiving before he can recognize that God is, indeed, always present to him.
to be continued