Spiritual Friendship
Author  :  Aelred of Rievaulx (12th Century A.D.)
Publisher  : Cistercian Publications (1977), 
the edition used is this review
BGST Lib : Associated University Presses (1994), trans., Mark F. Williams.
Review by Rev Ng Seng Chuan

This week, we introduce another gem of a spiritual work by a 12th Century monk of the Cistercian order, Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship looks at the most intimate possible of all human relationships. And this will surprise us. The book is not about marriage.  Most marriages do not come anywhere close to Aelred’s definition of friendship.  The book could have been re-titled “True Friendship”. Well, is there such a thing as true friendship – a friendship that transcends even the intimacy shared between husband and wife?

The answer is “yes,” quite obviously! You would not have forgotten so quickly that Aelred was a monk!  Monks don’t have wives – but they do have friends, as spouses often do not! What, then, makes a true “friend”?

The truth is, we all want friends. The awful truth is, many of us don’t have people we can count as “true friends.” And the even more awful truth is that most of us don’t make good friends ourselves. We live in a vicious and spiraling cycle of emotional deprivation in which the demand for friendship always far exceeds supply.

So our quest for friendship has to be double-edged: seeking understanding on how to find a friend, and then being a friend to another. I think it is only in this sense that the friendship can be “spiritual”. It is a genuinely reciprocating relationship in which we learn both to give and to take. And in this endeavour, if we are ready to embark on it, Aelred can be a reliable guide.

The work has 3 sections (or “books”). Book I defines friendship and its origins. Book II discusses the “rewards” of friendship. And Book III spells out the conditions for the survival of friendships. The language, owing to its being a translated work, is in places dense and convoluted.  What this review will attempt to do is to summarize briefly the thoughts of each section, and highlight some interesting points for those concerned to develop really meaningful relationships.

Book I defines friendship as “mutual harmony” marked by “benevolence and charity”. Aelred classifies friendship under 3 categories – carnal, worldly, and spiritual.  In modern terms, two people collaborating to rob a bank are certainly friends, but carnal friends!  Two people planning to make a lot of money as partners in an entrepreneurial venture are friends, too – but they are “worldly friends” seeking material gains.  Only when we build a relationship based upon congeniality in the pursuit of truth and justice might it be considered “spiritual”.

Aelred’s classification may offer some insights as to why we don’t have “real friends”. We care little for the conviviality that would “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We have become so calculating and functional that a relationship whose benefits are not easily quantifiable holds little appeal.

In Book II, Aelred presents the “fruition and excellence” of friendship, which is somewhat less prosaic than my description – the “rewards” of friendship. To Aelred, the chief joy of friendship is the scope for sharing adversity or illumination. As we might  say nowadays, “a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.” And what good is enlightenment if there isn’t another soul with whom to bask in the brilliance of God’s illumination?

Aelred’s work is structured as instructional dialogue with his colleagues within the monastic order (one Ivo, a Gratian and a Walter). At one point, Walter argues that having friends seems a ludicrous task no one is quite up to, seeing we all have enough problems of our own! Aelred’s reply is that not having friends, to whom one might occasionally be either a burden or a blessing, is to live like beasts! (You have no idea how hard this hits home to solitary types like the present reviewer!).

Friendship, for Aelred is rewarding not in the sense of gain or advantage. Quite the reverse. It is finding someone whom we could hold in high regard and esteem (for all his faults to which one is not blind), and to whom we might offer “worship” or express appreciation, rather than one from whom we seek or desire advantage or conferment.

Finally, there is a long Book III on the characteristics requisite for an enduring friendship. The first condition is love, and Aelred’s exposition hits home like a bolt out of the blue.  “There can be love without friendship, but friendship without love is impossible.” In other words, friendship is of a higher order of intimacy that transcends love.

At first, it seems impossible. But when Aelred explains further, it makes perfectly good sense. He gives the example of someone who hurts you deeply. Aelred would argue that this person deserves to be loved, even if you can no longer treat him as “friend”. 

More than once, I have been deeply hurt or felt betrayed. For a while, I didn’t even know if I could look at these people in the face, as one who has been forgiven (by Christ) and ought to learn to forgive, much less as one who loves. I hope never to see them again.  Sure, I don’t want them as friends, which they never were in the first place. I never need take them into my confidence again. But that is a sacred place reserved for precious few, if any.  I have put them on a pedestal they did not deserve – that of “true friendship”.  But beneath that pedestal, there is still a wide scope for decency and graciousness that I could offer.

There is more, much more, that is disturbingly refreshing in this quaint little classic. It is the kind of book you want to go back on, chunk by chunk, for meditation and reflection. It is the kind of book you could read like the Bible.

To me, the most touching passage is the section where Aelred discusses the friendship between David (king to be), and Jonathan (son of King Saul and David’s rival).  He defines Jonathan’s posture as “preferring friendship to a kingdom”.  To me, that would be the most beautiful depiction of true spiritual friendship. Which of us would give up a kingdom for a friend?

I trust that, in seeking out Aelred as guide, we would all become the kind of friends we so desperately desire to have.  For, in the words of another monk, St Francis of Assissi, “it is in giving that we receive.”



The speaker at last week’s chapel (12 April) was Yue Fah Yong, a graduate of BGST, and presently serving at Yio Chu Kang Gospel Hall

 Chapel saw our attention turned to John 13:18-30. A quick summary of the passage revealed the chief priest’s desire to snare Jesus and Judas offering himself for the task. Though Jesus knew in advance that Judas would betray Him, He accepted it as such. Judas started his ministry well. He was under the personal guidance of none other then Jesus. Yet he gave in to greed and ended badly. How do we avoid this outcome?

  1.  Allow no foothold for the devil.

  2.  Hold truth in our lives. An experienced cashier can tell the difference between true and fake currency because of frequent handling of the genuine notes. We ought to be the same.

  3. Help each other to abide in the faith.

  4.  Serve God consistently till the end of our lives. Avoid the contrasting perils of overwork and self-proclaimed retirement.

  5.  Maintain a learner’s attitude always.

 Summary by Dr Ng Liang Wei.

Chapel speaker on 26 April will be Rev Ng Seng Chuan.


  1. Library Update: We are growing! We want to say a big thank you to BGST supporters for giving us the opportunity to expand. Thanks to our alumnus, Peter Tang, the 4th floor and attic are now networked. Another alumnus, Chris Chin is giving us two dehumidifiers to protect our collections from milddew.  The library has began its expansion on Tuesday, 11 April 2006, with the help of Mano, Hock Chuan and Kok Wee. We hope to complete the move of the journal collection by 18 April 2006.  In this phase of expansion the Journal collection is relocated to the attic on the 4th floor. This creates more reading and studying area on the 1st floor and a new reading and studying area on the 4th floor. OPAC and Internet searches will also be available on the 4th floor and the attic. ATLA CD-ROM searches will be relocated to the attic. 
    In our next phase of move, the Reference Collection on the 2nd floor will be relocated to the 4th floor. We need a used vacumn cleaner for the 4th floor and a used hair-dryer to shink-wrap books for sale. To donate, contact Kok Weng at 92992280.

  1. Library Notice: Bibleworks version 7 is now available at $550. If we can consolidate our orders, there could be savings of approximately  $80.  For consolidation of order, please send your request to lib@bgst.edu.sg and for inquiries, please call Kok Weng at 92992280.

A Blessed Birthday to…

Mr Terry Wan  24/4

Ms Ong Bee Young  24/4

Ms Delene Lee  26/4

Mr Francis Yong  29/4

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