In the last few additions, I’ve been offering some considerations on Ailred’s writings, as examples of his activity at various stages of his life. This post is a reflection on his Pastoral Prayer and suggests a new dimension: the inner life of Ailred.
Charles Dumont, a Trappist of Scourmont, began his introduction to his edition of the Pastoral Prayer (Sources Chretiennes, les Editions du Cerf, Paris, 1961): “Lao-Tsu said somewhere, ‘You don’t know a man until you’ve seen him at prayer'” That would be a good perspective on the Pastoral Prayer if we are sure that we are catching Ailred unawares and at prayer. Why do I say that? Clearly this is a very personal and sincere prayer, self-effacing and transparent. It is only known from one copy in a manuscript belonging to Jesus College, Cambridge. This manuscript originally belonged to the Abbey of Rievaulx itself and it’s calligraphy dates it to the Thirteenth or, at the earliest, the late Twelfth Century. It was rediscovered only in 1925 by Dom Andre Wilmart, though Abbot Anselme Le Bail and J. Dubois believed that it was still read into the Sixteenth Century. Was it written for circulation–and, therefore is not exactly peek into the “secret” prayer life of Ailred? A later note appened to the manuscript of the Prayer recommends it as for Abbots. Or had it existed as a personal writing in Ailred’s lifetime, discovered at his death and copied into a later manuscript? It’s worth noting that the prayer is not ascribed to Ailred; Dom Wilmart is credited with recognizing Ailred’s style and all subsequent scholarship affirms that it could have been written by no one else. Perhaps we cannot answer what Ailred’s intent was in writing the prayer or whether he expected anyone else to use it.
The Pastoral Prayer is certainly a polished piece of writing and not a thoughtless, off-the-cuff composition. The Latin is not complicated, the vocabulary is difficult and the genre is not new. In the Eleventh Century, St. Anselm composed a number of personal prayers, representing a new phase of Latin Medieval spirituality. So much of the synthesis of Christianity and the cultures of the various peoples north of the Alps produced a collective piety of public worship and communal acts of piety. With Anselm re-emerges an expression of interiority and personal experience of God as had not been expressed in Latin since Augustine and Ambrose. Such expression found a ready response in monastics of the Twelfth Century, as in the meditations and prayers of the Monk of Farne or Jean of Fecamp or William of St. Thierry, or Ailred himself in his little treatise on a Recluse’s Rule of Life. In my own reading of his Pastoral Prayer, I sense the sonority and the rhythms of the Roman Canon, as if this were a personalization of liturgical prayer. Such rhetoric could indicate that the Prayer was intended for an audience or that Ailred was simply imbued with the spirit of the Eucharistic Prayer, the only Eucahristic Prayer (with changeable parts and additions for certain feasts) used in the Latin Church at that time.
But there are some notable differences between Ailred’s Prayer and the Roman Canon. First, they are of different lengths: the Canon is about three or four pages of print and the Pastoral Prayer, about ten. Ailred has a lot to pray about! More importantly, the Roman Canon is addressed to God the Father through the Son; it’s epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit, may be implicit but it is weak. Ailred’s Prayer is addressed to Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd or Pastor by an abbot or pastor; there is virtually no mention of God the Father but a couple of invocations of the Holy Spirit. This is so consitent with Ailred’s voice as we know it from his other works. As you may remember from his monastic sermons, his theology is Christ-centered rather than God-centered–a real contrast from the Trinitarian spirituality of his contemporary Cistercian authors. Jesus is addressed as Ailred’s shepherd, with all the respect owed to the Shepherd-King of the Old Testament, but also as his Judge and his Redeemer, explicitly as his God. The relationship between Ailred and Christ is respectful but also intimate, allowing Ailred great transparency. He is neither defensive nor attempting to make a good impression but confident of both mercy and the divine help to improve.
Ailred expresses his sense of inadequacy as Abbot. His model of leadership is heroic–the Abbot should have every virtue, all the answers and boundless confidence and self-assurance. We are far from Henri Nouwen’s “wounded healer” or any sense that our weaknesses are hidden resources or channels of grace. And since Ailred expects an Abbot to be self-sufficient, he doesn’t seem to seek assistance from his brothers in fulfilling his role. Did he admit these inadeqacies to them? Did he just trust and rely on those sympathetic to him? These possibilities are not even admitted by the Prayer. Significantly, when he prays for his “subjects” he prays for the Wisdom to provide for their needs but not to treat them with equality or without favoritism: that doesn’t seem to enter his consciousness.
Apart from the palpable humility and transparency of his past life and its sinfulness, his current failures and optimistic trust in Christ’s mercy, which are all so attractive, I believe what he doesn’t say in this prayer provides us equally poignant insight into the man.
You may read, even pray, Ailred’s Pastoral Prayer in the attractive English translation by Penelope Lawson in Liturgical Press’ Cistercian Fathers Series, CF 2, The Works of Aelred of Rievaulx: Treatises and The Pastoral Prayer.