Sermon for Epiphany 2 Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 January 2017
Epiphany 2 Evensong
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Jesus said, I shall no longer call you servants, but friends.
Friendship is an essential part of the Christian journey through life. It is through friends that we mature, we change, we influence each other for better or for worse. Spiritual friendship crosses the centuries. Our predecessors who inspired this church realised that the modern world did not possess all the answers to life’s difficulties, but among the early Fathers of the Church and the medieval saints, soul friends could be discovered, friendships brought to life, friends because of the shared experience of the Cross and the Risen Life. The way we continue that work of discovery here is through the use of the Anglican calendar and lectionary, which assigns particular days to these men and women from our Christian tradition, an opportunity to learn about their experience of Christ, to help us with our incomplete and struggling journeys. Over the coming months I want to introduce you to some of the soul friends I’ve met from the past; I don’t know how I’d manage without them.
Last Thursday was the day set aside for Aelred of Rievaulx; he was abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in North Yorkshire for twenty years in the twelfth century, from 1147 until his death in 1167. We can imagine an attractive, humorous figure, who in his youth had been in the service of King David of Scotland – he said he’d been educated in the kitchen not the school, but I think we’re talking a supervisor role, not Aelred loading the dishwasher. He wrote a number of books on spirituality, one called The Mirror of Charity, and another one, which I read again last week, On Spiritual Friendship, which is a conversation between Aelred and three other monks about what Christian friendship means. Let’s look at that for a moment and discover the gift Aelred and his monks offer us, what could be new to us, in his thoughts on Spiritual Friendship.
All friendship, Aelred says, is sacramental. He says to a young monk, there is me, there is you, and there is a third, Christ. Friendship can be imperfect, fun, exciting, consoling, but whatever form it takes, friendship is to be taken seriously because it is a way by which we come to experience the love of God, and it is the school in which we learn how to show God’s love to others. He works out why this is. It’s because God Himself is friendly, making connections, willing the best for his creation, so friendship is natural, like virtue and wisdom, to be treasured for itself. He quotes Cicero: Those who banish friendship from life seem to pluck the sun from the universe, for we have no better, no more delightful blessing from God. But we are to be careful. Friendship is not a matter of the senses alone; it is subservient to reason, and it is God’s gift of reason which separates us from animals. In his book there’s an irritating young monk called Gratian; Gratian wants to be friends with all the world, whoever comes along. Here comes our friend Gratian, another monk says, Gratian whom with reason I would call friendship’s follower, for his one ambition is to be loved and to love. Hold on, says Aelred, let’s think this through. Contrary to what we have been taught, the Middle Ages were not a time of superstition; these monks were grounded in the classics, in logic, and in reason, which is God’s gift to mankind. We are the superstitious ones today, dominated by how we feel from one minute to the next. So we are advised to integrate the physical and the spiritual, trust our feelings; so if all is going well we feel good; if we’re having a bad time, and no one loves us, we feel miserable within, but that glass of white wine at six o’clock helps immensely and we feel better again; outward suffering usually means inner pain for us. Outward well-being, inner contentment. I can hear monkish laughter echoing down the centuries from that cold cloister at Rievaulx, amazed at our naivety and ignorance. Are you no better than animals? Haven’t you read what Augustine says, that the person who pleases himself or herself is a fool? Back to basics. What were you created for? We are created in God’s image, therefore with infinite longings, a longing for God’s company, and we shall know happiness only when those longings are infinitely satisfied. Reason and our tradition are our guides to happiness. Mere attachment, friendship without reason, is an animal instinct … incapable of discerning between the licit and the illicit, says Aelred. All sin is contrary to right reason.
Then Aelred tells us how to be friends. The clue is in what Jesus says, Love your neighbour as yourself. If a person does not love himself he shall hate his neighbour as himself. Here is the mirror, says Aelred, look at it and love yourself. If you do not love yourself, how can you love another? If you hate your own soul, nagged by feelings of failure and despair, how can you possibly love the soul of a friend? Rather, from love of self to love of neighbour to love of God; that is Aelred’s spiritual progression. Then, very gently, he explains to the young monks the complications which arise in a friendship, the need for discretion, caution, discrimination and respect, the poison of suspicion, and he quotes St Jerome: a friendship that can end was never genuine.
I know Aelred would have made a good friend. What I find so wonderful about these spiritual friendships in the past is that we can enjoy all the cultural differences and even the misunderstandings, for in the end we are sharing the same experience, looking from our different distances at the same Cross, knowing the love that will not let us go, living with the same risen life given to us by the One who said, I no longer call you servants, but friends.