After Ailred became Abbot, his life was rather uneventful by our standards; but less so by the standards of his time because he had to travel annually to Citeaux for the General Chapter of Abbots and conduct visitations to Rievaulx’s various foundations. During his journeys, he might be asked on occasion to preach in a cathedral and he did continue to write. It was after he became Abbot of Rievaulx that he composed a work, perhaps his most popular with modern readers, Spiritual Friendship. This work was written in the 1140’s and probably in two stages of composition. On one level, it reflects Cicero’s classic, De amicitia—About Friendship–but Ailred’s insights are entirely new, Christian and peculiarly monastic.
Spiritual Friendship is written in the form of a dialogue taking place in the monastery between Ailred and a few of his monks: Ivo, and later, Gratian and Walter. The structure is formal and traditional; for example, Gregory the Great wrote a book of Dialogues which includes his account of St. Benedict’s life. In Gregory’s very formal dialogues, he seems to have all the answers and his secretary, the Deacon Peter, conveniently asks all the right questions and makes all the appropriately inappropriate remarks that allow Gregory to set the record straight. It’s not that Ailred doesn’t have most of the answers in his dialogue–Gratian, in fact has some important insights–so much as his ability to suggest portraits of real personalities that sets this work apart. Every now and then sparks of personality break out from the interactions of the interlocutors that seem as important as the content of their conversation. These personalities are not ideal, suggesting that friendship is possible between real, flawed people.
The representation of the monk Walter, in particular, portrays a tetchy, moody–shall I write difficult?–person in this group. Did Walter have a healthy sense of humor or was he just so clueless that he was simply flattered by the publicity? That must sound very harsh but we know more of Walter than his appearance in Spiritual Friendship. Up to the twentieth century, the only contemporary witness of Ailred, frequently quoted, was that of Gilbert of Hoyland; Abbot of a daughter house of Rievaulx, Gilbert eulogized Ailred in one of his sermons upon receiving news of his death. But a Life of Ailred, resurfaced as early as 1865 and a summary was printed in 1901, but the work became a standard part of Ailred research when translated into English and published in 1950, by Oxford’s F. M. Powicke, a seminal Ailred scholar. The Life of Ailred was written by the monks Walter Daniel, a contemporary of Ailred’s and a member of his community and a part of his inner circle of friends. This is the same Walter who appears in Spiritual Friendship and exhibits a character difficult for many modern readers to swallow. Take my reaction with a grain of salt and only as my reaction: Walter Daniel reminds me of the member of a star’s entourage. Today he might be the PR man or spin doctor of some public figure; the sort of ubiquitous individual in the background of photos in People. Evidently Ailred gave Walter his time and confidence; but were his confidences as deep and exclusive as Walter Daniel believed? Was he too star-struck by, too defensive of Ailred to be entirely credible? But he does give us a wealth of anecdotes about Ailred and whether he offers information or misinformation, his Life of Ailred provides scholars a foothold as they dig into the meaning of Ailred’s life as they extract more data from other documents. Even I’ll admit that were fortunate that Walter Daniel wrote down what he did; without his Life of Ailred, we’d have so much less to say about the man.