Towards the end of the Mirror of Charity, Ailred touches upon the subject of friendship within the general contexts of attractions and what might draw the monk away from God. That said, he doesn’t reject the possibility of friendship in monastic life. He cautions that it can go either way–for good or ill–but tries to make a balanced judgement. Friendship, in fact, has a long pedigree in monastic writing from the friendship of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzen who were both bishops and monks in fourth century Anatolia or St. Augustine of Hippo who never ceased to enjoy friendship and good conversation (it is often forgotten that he led a monastic life as a bishop in fifth century North Africa) through St. Anselm, monk of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century. Anselm enjoyed effusive epistolary friendships with other monks–some of whom he rarely met–throughout northern Europe.
When Ailred wrote his Spiritual Friendship, however, he was writing about his experience in a single monastic community and in more detail and with more fully developed consideration than a few paragraphs in The Mirror of Charity. I believe it’s important to remember that the warmth of the community at Rievaulx had attracted the ambitious, young courtier, Ailred, in the first place. But the tricky things about friendship in a monastic community is that friendship, unlike efforts at charity, is both spontaneous and preferential. Friendship values this person over another. After his death some in the community at Rievaulx would complain that Ailred, in a sense, divided the community by allowing a circle of friends who had free access to him in his near-invalid state at the end of his life. Amazingly, however, Ailred recognized that this preferential attraction could be a vehicle of God’s grace and a “sacrament”, if you will, of God’s love. He believed that it was monastic celibacy and chastity that freed the monk to enjoy friendship and to observe the appropriate restraint so that the friendship would not draw him away from his profession. In that realization he observed two astounding possibilities: “God is friendship”, he wrote, paraphrasing St. John; Deus amicitia est. And that where there was true friendship between two monks there was always a third present: Christ. The devotion he felt towards a friend could be part of his more intense devotion to Christ; and Christ was in the friendship to keep the friends primarily centered on God, not each other. Friendship could be the portal to loving God, not a distraction from it. It is this sort of writing that leads some scholars to refer to the Cistercian–and Christian–“humanism” of the twelfth century.