Have you ever felt a deep connection to someone you’ve never met? Perhaps you’ve developed feelings of friendship after reading a memoir or listening to an album? You know what I mean—something sparks inside of you, and you think “If I could only sit down with this person over a good cup of tea, I know we’d be friends.” There is something powerful—even sacred at times—about the invitation into another person’s world through word and story. We see something of ourselves in them or sense a uniting point of humanity, and it enkindles within our hearts the sense that we are not alone, that our experience is not all that unique, that there are fellow travelers with similar aches and joys and visions of the world.
I sometimes sense this spark of friendship, for lack of a better word, as I learn about Christians who have gone before us. (I know, I’m a bit of a strange bird in this case.) As I read their writings and the stories recorded of them, there are certain characters who become prominent in my mind. Although we are separated by a great chasm of time and space, I feel a sense of friendship and an awareness of a kindred spirit.
One such “friend” for me is Aelred of Rievaulx. Rievaulx Abbey now stands in ruins in the countryside of northern Yorkshire, and its beloved abbot, Aelred, has been largely forgotten. But this fascinating man leaves behind a touching legacy of deep compassion, particularly towards those who are weaker in the faith.
The Cistercian monastic order Aelred was a part of in the 12th-century was trying to reform the existent practices of the monks. They saw the extravagance and corruption of the existing monastic orders and believed too great of compromises were being made with the secular world. So, they pushed for greater standards of poverty, of penance, and of solitude. Reading of the strict and austere lifestyle of the Cistercians may be shocking for a modern reader, but they were the figures of their times “taking it to the next level,” trying to go deeper with the Lord and in their commitment to following him. They were trying to, in the best way they knew how, get back to the basics of the faith and rediscover a pure faith unadulterated by the influence of the world.
But there were some monks who could not handle the strict Cistercian standards. Lengthy periods of complete silence and solitude drove some to depression. Strong emphasis on penance to overcome sin left some in fear of the wrath of God and despairing of his grace. The dictated lifestyle and deprivation of the human body led some to rebel against the monastery rules.
Enter our friend Aelred, who supported the strict Cistercian standards but in a way laced with a profound sense of compassion. His abbey became a safe haven for monks who were rejected or cast out from other monasteries. He dealt effectively, yet gently, with the monks in need of remedial attention, getting through when no one else could. He was driven by the conviction that any amount of spiritual excellence was not worth excluding those who were spiritually weak.
He took time to listen to the monks under his care, and as many as twenty or thirty at a time would gather around him to ask him questions or share their struggles. Even towards the end of his life, they were continually allowed into his chamber in the infirmary, sitting about on his bed and prattling away like young children would with their mother. Because of this concern, this love, this mercy, monks came to Rievaulx seeking solace and rest.
Aelred’s beloved disciple and biographer writes that
Monks in need of mercy and compassion flocked to Rievaulx from foreign peoples and from the far ends of the earth, that there in very truth they might find peace and the holiness without which no man shall see God. And so those wanderers in the world to whom no house of religion gave entrance, came to Rievaulx, the mother of mercy, and found the gates open and entered them freely, giving thanks unto their Lord.
I know that our times and life situations are different. I, for one, am not in a monastery and doubt that it is biblically the best means to be “in the world not of it.” This caveat given, is our situation really that different? Aren’t we also trying to chart the best way to live faithfully? Don’t we also as a Christian community include those who are struggling in this journey, who feel there is no place for them? Don't we have our rebels, our doubters, our depressed? Don't we sometimes create outcasts in our own attempts for "spiritual excellence"?
What would it look like to have our homes, our churches, and our lives ordered around a deep compassion for those who are on the fringes and can’t quite make it on their own? What could it look like to be a community who supports and carries the limping among us into the Kingdom? I pray we are not like those “houses of religion," denying entrance to the struggling or the outcast. May we be “houses” of mercy, with open gates for those in need of compassion.