Abbot Aelred (1109-67) was the abbot of the English Cistercian abbey of Rievaulz from 1147-1167. During his abbacy he built Rievaulx into a place of spiritual welcome and physical prosperity, wanting to make it a “mother of mercy” to those in need.
In a three-book dialogue, Aelred defines human friendship as sacramental, beginning with creation, as God sought to place his own love of society in all his creatures, then linking friends to Christ in this life and culminating in friendship with God in heaven. His work on Spiritual Friendship is today the best known and perhaps most influential of his 13 surviving works.
The following is Abbot Aelred’s Biblical homily on David’s and Jonathan’s (King Saul’s son) friendship.
Jonathan, outstanding among all young men, took no heed of his royal lineage or his hope of the throne, but allied himself with David the servant and made him his equal in friendship before the Lord. The king had made David a fugitive, forced him to hide in the desert, and condemned him to death. Yet Jonathan preferred David to himself, exalting him, humbling himself. “You,” he said, “will be king and I will follow you.”
What a splendid picture of true friendship! What an astonishing situation! Here was the king, raging against his servant and stirring up the whole country as if David were aiming at the crown. He accuses the priests of treason and puts them to death on a mere suspicion. He combs and searches woods and valleys, besieges the mountains and rocky crags with troops, and every man is sworn to wreak vengeance upon the source of the king’s indignation.
Only Jonathan, who alone should have had greater cause for envy, thought it right to resist his father. Putting himself at the service of his friend, he offered help and advice in his time of need. Jonathan set friendship above a kingdom. “You are to be the king,” he said, “and I will be second to you.” Still, the father tried to incite his son to envy David. He covered him with abuse and frightened him by threatening to deprive him of the kingdom and strip him of his rank.
When the king pronounced sentence of death upon David, Jonathan still did not desert his friend. “Why should David die? How has he sinned? What has he done? When he risked his life and killed the Philistine, you rejoiced. Why then should he die?”
So maddened was the king at these words that he tried to pin Jonathan to the wall with his spear, heaping further abuse and threats upon him: “Bastard son of a wayward woman,” he screamed, “I know well that, to your undoing and that of your shameful mother’s, you love him.” With this he spewed forth the full measure of his venom over Jonathan and uttered the words that were his final attempt to arouse bitter envy and jealous ambition: “As long as the son of Jesse lives, you will never establish your kingdom.”
Who would not be moved to envy by these words? Whose love, whose favor, whose abiding friendship would not be corrupted, weakened and destroyed by such an utterance? Yet in his great love, this young man kept faith with his friend. He was steadfast in the face of threats, unmoved by insults; forgetting renown, he thought only of service. He spurned a kingdom for the sake of friendship. “You,” he said, “will be king, and I will be second to you.”
This is what truly a perfect, stable and lasting friendship is, a tie that envy cannot spoil, nor suspicion weaken, nor ambition destroy. A friendship so tempted yielded not an inch, was buffeted but did not collapse. In the face of so many insults, it remained unshaken. Go, therefore, and do likewise.