Some years before the Caldey conversion, Abbot Aelred Carlyle wrote his essay Our Purpose and Method. In that he passes on advice he himself once received: “Paint your picture in strong colours, keep it ever before you, and strive to live up to it; if you do this conscientiously, you will not find yourself very much out in the end”.
In St. Aelred of Rievaulx we see all the outlines of that picture, which inspired and guided our community from its beginnings, and please God continues to do so today. St. Aelred was notable for his gentleness and love of the brethren; for his teachings on Charity, and Friendship, and the Saints of England and Scotland; for his devotion to monastic life under the Rule of St. Benedict; for the example he set of assiduous application to lectio divina; for his gift of prayer with tears, and his ability to set aside all distractions at will; for his outstanding qualities of leadership as Abbot; for his single-minded love of Jesus Christ.
This year, as happens more often than not, the feast of St. Aelred falls within lent, so today we have something of a welcome break from our lenten observance. It struck me though that St. Aelred would have much to teach us precisely about how to keep lent well. He was after all a Cistercian monk, a contemporary and friend of St. Bernard, at a time when the whole Orderwas noted for its fervent austerity of life. So I looked to see what he has to say about lent in his Sermons.
We have several volumes of these in our library. They were all written and delivered in Latin; so far very few have been translated. We see fully deployed in them St. Aelred’s mastery of rhetoric, and his Encyclopaedic knowledge of Holy Scripture. We see also how patient his monks must have been, because the sermons are generally very much longer than would be tolerated anywhere nowadays.
His Sermon LII, as given in the Corpus Christianorum series, was delivered to his monastic community one Ash Wednesday. As we might expect, he says there that lent is the season which belongs particularly to monks, because unlike many people who live outside the monastery, monks have no excuse whatever not to take it very seriously. Remarkably though, Aelred says there is no point him speaking now about fasting or vigils, or hard manual work, or other physical austerities, because all his brethren practise them all habitually anyway!
What Aelred speaks about instead is Consideratio. The word is familiar as the Title of a famous treatise of St. Bernard: de Consideratione. St. Bernard wrote this for his spiritual son, Pope Eugenius III. Bernard tells Eugenius how to be Pope, and not at the same time lose his soul. We might translate Consideratio as “sober reflection”, or “serious facing up to reality”, even as “mindfulness”. The term overlaps to a great extent with St. Benedict’s First Step of Humility. Consideratio involves constant remembrance of God’s presence; it involves self watchfulness, in order to practise all the virtues, and avoid sin in any form; it involves fear of hell, and ardent longing for heaven.
Lent is given to us by the Holy Spirit, says St. Aelred, as a special opportunity or summons to remember our own death, and reflect on the miseries of this life. Consideremus, he says, ubi fuimus, ubi sumus, quid nobis sperandum est, quid timendum: “Let us consider where we were, where we now are, what we have to hope for, what we have to fear”. We were in paradise before Adam threw it all away; we are here surrounded by darkness within and without; we hope for heaven, we fear hell. Heaven is the supreme good, summum bonum, where there will be no lack of anything that anyone could desire, and no evil to be feared. Hell is the supreme evil, summum malum, from which no escape can even be hoped for. Paradise, he says, was a moderate good, mediocre bonum, in that the good that was found there could always either be increased or entirely lost. And here we live in moderate evil, mediocre malum, in that the evils that surround us are not eternal, and we hope to be freed from them all at last forever.
Aelred warns against ever thinking that the supreme good can be found in this life. It can’t. Wicked people fall into that trap. They take this land of exile for their true home. They forget where they came from, paradise, or where they are heading for, either heaven or hell, and above all they forget all about God. In the vain attempt to secure their own good through fame, or wealth, or pleasure, or power, they commit many crimes, which will draw them inexorably towards hell. Aelred also warns against thinking that this life could ever be for us the supreme evil: it can’t be. People in despair who try to flee from this evil, immorally, risk falling into a far greater evil in eternity.
Happy the soul, cries Aelred, that is ever mindful of its own fragility, that remembers its sins and their due punishment; that ponders its own coming death! Happy the soul that gives itself up to weeping for its present state, and to mourning for the paradise it lost! Such a soul will have its desire for heaven ever sharpened; its longing for God ever purified; its detachment from all worldly goods and worldly cares ever deepened. This soul will then be able to practise even detachment from its own will, after the pattern of Jesus Christ, and so give itself up without hindrance to love of God and of the brethren.
Come to me, says Jesus, all you who labour and are overburdened.
In lent we cease pretending that everything with us is just fine, and we acknowledge, in sober consideration, how much we need divine help, just to cope with the burdens of our daily life. In lent also we look forward with eager anticipation to the promised reward, to rest from all our toil, to resurrection, to heaven. And in lent, with St. Aelred, with all our monastic brethren past and present and, please God, to come, we turn our gaze with special intensity towards the only source of our hope, and all our joy, to Jesus Christ, our supreme love, our Saviour and our Lord and our God.