It’s been a while since Ailred appeared on these posts and the last installment considered his historical writings. Those writings dated to the beginning of the reign of King Henry II (1154-1189). Ailred spent his years as Abbot preaching to his community, at other monasteries or even–more the exception than the rule–in cathedrals on special occasions. His sermons, then, would be an important source of his teaching and views. However, sermons can’t be over-estimated; they are ultimately tied to a text or an event beyond the preacher’s control and may not constitute a proportional representation of the preacher’s interests or priorities. The study of Ailred’s sermons has suffered from the favor given to his treatises; and critical editions of his sermons, taking all of the manuscript evidence into consideration, were not published until the end of the twentieth century. Work is still needed to suggest a chronology of his sermons, always a tricky business for medieval preaching since they could be worked and re-worked for dissemination. It is also worth mentioning that translations of his complete sermons into English only began to make it into print in 2001.
But there are some conclusions that may be drawn from the body of edited work we now have. Ailred’s preaching and spirituality is clearly Christo-centric. Why is that worth mentioning for a Christian preacher? For one, an author’s perspective could be Trinitarian–a good twelfth century Cistercian example would be Baldwin of Ford whose entire monastic spirituality is based of the communion of Persons which is the Holy Trinity. But Ailred’s approach is centered firmly on Christ, theologically and as exemplar and as the empowering source of grace and mercy for living the Christian/monastic life. It is not that Ailred ignores the Trinity or God the Father or the Holy Spirit, but he locates the transformation of the believer, the reality of Revelation and the work of salvation in Christ. Jesus Christ is also the consolation and companion of the disciple who communicates, orders love, both divine and (at its best) human.
Mary and the saints are presented to the believer by Ailred as archetypes of discipleship, faith and the virtues. Ailred’s mariology is conventional, presenting her as an idealized and distant feminine figure. By contrast, a contemporary Cistercian Abbot, Isaac of Stella, saw in Mary a model of the Church, immediate, fruitful and intimately connected to each Christian. Bernard of Clairvaux interpreted Mary as the exemplar of Christian faith and obedience, a gracious Lady and Mother inspiring lyrical outpourings not unlike those of a troubadour lauding his beloved. Ailred expresses more warmth for some local Northumbrian saints but does not so much see the saints as one of us, enduring the same limits and struggles as ourselves. Instead, they are heroes and pillars of the Church, powerful intercessors for us in our weakness. Consistently, his references to the Church is in her pristine and idealized form. Unlike Gregory the Great or Jerome or Bernard in his letters, Ailred does not draw attention to the concrete problems or abuses in the Church of his day.
Perhaps where Ailred shines in his preaching is the application of the liturgical feasts to the monastic life. Although his thinking is formed by a cultures very different from our own and his concepts and expression may not be immediate to our taste, the monastic discipline, the cultivation of virtue and the formation of palpable community concretizing the themes of his sermons for the listener/reader. The practicality, the interest and even the warmth of the preacher emerges at this level.