Spiritual Friendship: Finding God In Our Human Relationships

Aelred of Rievaulx came from a long line of married priests. He was the fourth generation of priests in his family, and his great grandfather had been shrine bearer for Cuthbert in Durham. Aelred is a perfect example of Celtic Christianity having thin boundaries with the traditions around it. He was an Anglo-Saxon, an Englishman, and yet he traced his lineage through Cuthbert to Lindisfarne, Iona, and eventually all the way back to Patrick. He wrote the life of St Ninian who was a very important Celtic Saint to the Picts in what is now present day Scotland. Ninian was sometimes called the Apostle to the Southern Picts as many stories are told of him in the Scottish lowlands and Northumbria. Like Ninian, Aelred also lived on both sides of the Scottish and English border in Northumbria. He is definitely one of the fruits of the great Celtic tree.

He wrote many books about history and spirituality. His most famous work is called Spiritual Friendship, which is about a kind of friendship which is rooted in the teachings of Cicero with a Celtic/Anglo-Saxon and Christian outlook. The title immediately makes one think of anamchara, however, there are essential differences between the Irish anamcharas and the kind of friendship Aelred describes in his book. Both are spiritual relationships but of a different nature. Anamchara is a relationship of mentor and student or spiritual director and spiritual directee. Spiritual friendship is a way of living in community which makes our relationships with our closest friends, family, and spouses a contemplative practice.

Perhaps one way to look at it (though not a historical approach) is to see spiritual friendship as a larger umbrella under which anamchara exists. A proper anamchara relationship has its source in spiritual friendship. It is a kind of spiritual friendship but with a specific dynamic which would not be shared with one’s spouse, for instance. It is this approach to spiritual friendship that makes anamchara different from other kinds of spiritual direction. Equality and reciprocity are the foundation of spiritual friendship and no friendship can be called true without them.

Aelred’s teaching on friendship is rooted in the idea that our human relationships lead us into relationship with God. Though Aelred found himself much later in history than the early Irish anamcharas, he was still very much a spiritual director who used the same basic principles. His use of contraries and his integration of the discussion of vice and virtue is essential to how he understands healthy and fruitful human relationship. His stages of friendship, in particular the choosing and testing stages, are a kind of examination of vice and virtue which requires us to have a deep discernment. Aelred says of friendship,

“With its sweetness it is a foundation for all the virtues, and with its virtue it destroys the vices…The wise man says, ‘a friend is medicine for life.’ What a striking metaphor! No remedy is more powerful, effective, and distinctive in everything that fills this life than to have someone to share your every loss with compassion and your every gain with congratulation.”

Before Aelred goes into the meat of his teaching on friendship he makes sure to make a point of clarification between friendship and charity. Charity is to be given without reservation. We are to love and care for all of God’s creatures even, and perhaps especially, our enemies. Friendship, however, is reserved for those with whom we have a reciprocal relationship, a deep trust, and love untainted by material or political gain. This is where spiritual friendship differs from what Aelred calls carnal friendship. True spiritual friendship is only possible between those who are good. 

If, for instance, your friend wanted you to help them commit a crime then that friendship is not true. If someone wants to be your friend because you can get them a job, then that is not spiritual friendship. Many people in Aelred’s time, as well as our own, place friendship even above virtue and are willing to cover up evil for the sake of loyalty. Aelred makes clear that this is not spiritual friendship and that in all things what is good must be more important to us than loyalty to our “friends.” 

In order to help us make sure that we choose the right people to be part of our inner circle, Aelred gives a series of four steps by which we approach the perfection of friendship. The stages are laid out below. Before one can even begin these steps, however, we must first love ourselves. Following the great commandment of Jesus to love our neighbour as our self and to love God with all our heart, Aelred describes the path to loving God as beginning with oneself, then one’s neighbour, then God. He said,

“Have no doubt that friendship grows out of love. If you do not love yourself, how can you love another? From the likeness of love with which you are personally dear to yourself, you ought to direct your love to your neighbour. But the one who exacts of himself or inflicts on himself anything disgraceful or dishonest does not love himself. The first requirement is that each one purify himself, permitting himself nothing unbecoming, denying himself nothing worthwhile. But one who loves himself by following those guidelines should also love his neighbours.”

Since friendship is only possible between those who are good, we must ourselves be good if we wish to be a friend to others. Once we truly love ourselves, then we are able to begin the task of loving our neighbour which these steps describe. The four stages of friendship are laid out briefly below:


When choosing our friends we should look not only for similarity in character and interests, which are an important aspect of friendship, but we should also consider the vices a person has. We may find that we very much enjoy the company of someone but notice that they tend to gossip about others or that they are easily angered by trivial matters. Even though there may be a kind of affection with such a person, they are not a wise choice for spiritual friendship because their conduct displays the progress they have made in a life of virtue, and spiritual friendship can only exist between those who are good. Aelred does make a point, however, to say that we should not expect perfection in the virtues, but rather a desire to heal vice and a willingness to accept advice from others when their vices begin to surface.


Aelred notes four qualities in our new friends which we should test: loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. He describes each as such:

“Loyalty: you may confidently entrust to the friend yourself and all that is yours.

Right intention: from friendship the friend may expect nothing but God and the natural blessing of friendship

Discretion: a person may know, we believe, what should be offered and what should be asked of a friend, when to condole with or congratulate or even correct the friend, for what reason to do these things, and the right time and place for them.

Patience: when corrected, the friend may not fret or despise or hate the one who corrects him, and he himself may not be ashamed to bear any hardship for his friend.”

We test our new friends for these qualities primarily by being aware of their importance, observing our interactions with them to see how they act in regards to each of these things. He also advises that we do not jump right into complete trust with new friends but that we incrementally share each of the above qualities. By giving opportunity for loyalty, intention, discretion, and patience in small amounts we can test the waters before jumping in head first.


If our new friend shows that they are relatively competent in each of these virtues then we can accept them as a true friend. The primary thing which distinguishes those we show charity to and those we call friends is the trusting of secrets and aspirations. To accept a person into friendship is a radical act. It is not merely to get together for games night once a week or to send each other Christmas cards. Aelred describes friendship as a union of intentions and desires, a mystical and profound relationship which sees the needs of each other as one’s own. He describes the acceptance of one into our inner circle as such,

“With all affection I embrace many whom I do not admit into the intimacies of friendship, which consists especially in communicating all my secrets and aspirations. The Lord says in the Gospel, ‘I will no longer call you servants, but friends.’ Then adding the reason for which friends are considered worthy of the name he says, ‘because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

There can be no superior between friends. So once someone is accepted into your inner circle, you should consider all their problems to be yours and provide any resources they may need. Aelred suggests that the ideal is to consider the needs of your friend above your own but he says,

“If you judge it hard or even impossible to prefer one you love to yourself, supposing you desire to be a friend, at least do not fail to put that one on an equal footing with yourself. Indeed, those who disregard equality do not rightly foster friendship. ‘Show deference to a friend as to an equal,’ says Ambrose, ‘and in offering a service do not be ashamed to forestall a friend in service. For friendship knows nothing of pride.’ Be certain that a faithful friend is medicine for life and a blessing for immortality.”

The idea that true friendship lasts beyond the mortal world and carries on into the next life is an essential part of why friendship is a spiritual practice. The perfection of friendship in this world of separation draws us nearer to God, and this is the true goal of spiritual friendship. 


The final goal of making our human relationships a spiritual practice is the healing of the inner senses. It is a process by which we are able to clear the fog of original sin and lift the darkness which clouds our inner eyes. Over time a true spiritual friendship, once accepted, matures into something which has profound spiritual benefits to both friends. Aelred says,

“The day before yesterday as I was walking around the monastery, with the brothers sitting in a most loving circle, I marvelled at the leaves, blossoms, and fruits of each single tree as if I were in the fragrant bowers of paradise. Finding not one soul whom I did not love and, I was sure, not one soul by whom I was not loved, I was filled with joy that surpassed all the delights of the world. Indeed, coursing through me, I could say with the prophet, ‘See how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to live in unity’…As devotion grows with the support of spiritual interests, and as with age maturity increases and the spiritual senses are illumined, then with affection purified, such friends may mount to higher realms, just as we said yesterday that because of a kind of likeness the ascent is easier from human friendship to friendship with God himself.”

It is hard to say whether Aelred is speaking literally or metaphorically about the leaves and blossoms he saw. It reminds me very much of another article I wrote on Cassian and spiritual bees which you can find HERE. He seems to be using the imagery of Eden in this passage and comparing his friends’ virtues to various beautiful flowers and fruits growing on spiritual trees. In many ways the monastery is an immram like Brendan went on, searching for a new Eden. It is an attempt to live in the harmony which Eden represents. 

It is also worth noting the emphasis on inner senses here. Aelred actually concludes his little book with an appeal to this imagery as well. One thing which spiritual friends do is to pray for one another and Aelred describes a mystical transference of our affection for our friend to an affection for Christ which happens as we pray for our friend. This transference of affection itself awakens our inner senses.

“Thus praying to Christ for a friend and desiring to be heard by Christ for a friend, we focus on Christ with love and longing. Then sometimes suddenly, imperceptibly, affection melts into affection, and somehow touching the sweetness of Christ nearby, one begins to taste how dear he is and experience how sweet he is. Thus rising from that holy love with which a friend embraces a friend to that which a friend embraces Christ, one may take the spiritual fruit of friendship fully and joyfully into the mouth, while looking forward to all abundance in the life to come.”

Therefore, my dear sisters and brothers, be intentional about your friendships. Show love and compassion on all of God’s creatures but bring into your sacred circle only those who have pure intentions, who do not wish to use you for selfish purposes. Allow your circle of friends to become a re-creation of Eden where your inner senses can be awakened. Allow your love for your spouse, your children, and your other friends to melt into your love for God and in this process you will find a sweetness which brings joy and goodness into your life and theirs.

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