As regular readers of the website’s NEWS realize, it’s been a long time since any mention of Ailred of Rievaulx has been made. I had planned to make this post when Fr. Edward unexpectedly died, while this past week I did’t want to detract from the announcement of the WMU broadcast. I’ve been eager to revisit more of Ailred’s sermons in particular the less well known series on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. My fingers are tempted to type “Jeremiah”, rather than “Isaiah” since, in my own mind, Isaiah is the a prophet of hope and restoration, while Jeremiah consistently deals with the darker realities of our history with God. If course, Isaiah offers his shares of warning, of punishment, curses and retribution and these seem to be the passages that Ailred underlines in his sermons.
A series of sermons like these on one book of the Bible is a particular genre. Such a series is not an exegetical commentary like the sermons of Bede the Venerable (672-735) on the Gospel of Luke or the Acts of the Apostles. Rather, like St. Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Song, the series witness to the author’s fascination with a particular Book, his lectio divina, his prayerful reading of the text, exploited and amplified to to uncover its moral and spiritual implications. And like St. Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs, Ailred’s sermons on the prophet Isaiah display the very personal and mature response to the text, but a partial reading, far from treating the entire book.
In this context I use the word “mature” to charcterize the brooding questions of middle age and beyond, those sobering questions we ask when we begin to glimpse death –even as a distant and indistinct figure–on our horizon and wonder what our life has been about and what it needs to be about for the days left.
If the Mirror of Charity and On Spiritual Friendship or Jesus at Twelve Years Old communicated a certain confidence and humanistic delight in the monastic life, a youthful vigor, Ailred is considering other matters in his reading of Isaiah. He considers instead temptation, punishment for sin, future judgment and courage in facing the sobering aspects and obstacles in our life with God. Even his writing-style seems more concise and austere. That’s not to say that such musings totally depart from his earlier work. Ailred had already considered such agenda in his Rule of Life for a Recluse, in his monastic sermons, in his disturbing tale, The Nun of Watton and even in the Mirror of Charity. Except for the Mirror of Charity, these are the lesser read works of Ailred and the mood is not as consistenly sustained as through his sermons on Isaiah.
It can be too easy to read into a few works of Ailred, the ones most widely translated, read and studied, an optimistic faith in human nature. That is not the complete picture of Ailred’s thought or experience. They are not the sum of human experience, for that matter! If we do not consider his other works, we risk interpreting what he has to say about Spiritual Friendship, for example, out of context and inaccurately. Significantly, I’ve only found English paraphrases of the Nun of Watton, in works correcting a two-dimensional assessments of Ailred’s teaching and character; there is yet no English translation of his Sermons on Isaiah.
There is a real value in approaching medieval texts with questions and problems, formed by our contemporary experience in mind. I believe this has helped us to rediscover the complexity of creativity in monastic work, over and against routine institutionalism, or the importance of communication and affectivity over and against Jansenistic individualism and severity. But we can be mistaken to read into any text our needs resolved or into any author, the oracle with all our answers. We need, also, to distinguish our times, our responsibilities and our vocation from those of another time and place.