This Lent, I am reflecting upon the life and writings of my patron saint, St. Aelred (1100- 1167). He was a Cistercian monk and Abbot of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. It was while visiting the ruins of the Abbey in 2009, that I felt the call to become an Oblate, and so I took his name at my Oblation. I had read a little about him prior to this but there was something about exploring the ruined Abbey where he lived and prayed that got into my bones. I had also thought about becoming an oblate now and then, before my visit. Before I left the ruined Abbey, I had purchased a copy of the Rule, so in a way, St Aelred led me to St Benedict.
Perhaps you also took a saint’s name when you became an oblate and so have a special patron, or, if not, there may be a saint who specially inspires you, whom you could spend a little time reflecting upon in Lent. Or it might be an opportunity to reflect more closely upon our common patron, St Benedict, and his Holy Rule. As St Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘Take me for your model, as I take Christ.’ Our saints, including our Holy Father Benedict, are encouraging us to do the same.
A saint’s life and teaching can help form our spiritual lives and shape them anew. We know this from our frequent reading of St Benedict’s Rule. The Holy Spirit within a saint speaks to the Holy Spirit within us, or rather helps to focus on the Holy Spirit within ourselves. By becoming aware of the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of our saint, we can become more aware of the working of the Holy Spirit within our own lives.
Moreover, a saint is God’s gift to us to inspire us and help us to follow Christ. It is a unique and personal gift to sanctify our own uniqueness. In reflection, we could ask ourselves why God has given us this particular saint as a guide and companion. We could also try to identify a connection between our saint and ourselves.
It may seem strange that I should find things in common with a Cistercian abbot from the twelfth century, aside from trying to live by the Holy Rule. However, he was blessed with a gift for friendship and I seem to have received the same blessing in my own life. In many ways he is the patron saint of friendship, as is evident in his treatises on friendship, ‘Spiritual Friendship’ and ‘The Mirror of Charity’ where he considers friendship to be sacramental. This Christo-centric approach to friendship has helped me in my own friendships. He was also a great friend of the young and encouraged and guided them, which is what I have tried to do in my time as a teacher (and which continues in my recent retirement with not a few ex-students).
St Aelred saw himself as following St Benedict who is in turn following Christ on the Way to eternal life. Therefore, he has his sights on St Benedict on his journey following Christ. He wrote that as the Israelites needed Moses to lead them through the desert, so the monk (or oblate) is led by the hand of Benedict on the Way of Christ.
In the final verse of Psalm 76 we read:
‘You guided your people like a flock,
By the hand of Moses and Aaron.’
I have discovered that, not only am I being led by the hand of St Benedict (Moses) but also by the hand of St Aelred (Aaron). At times, during the lockdown, in prayer I have felt myself being held up by them. I have come to appreciate more fully the communion of saints. When saying the prayer for our absent brethren, I have been reminded that they are praying for me too. In these dark months, I have also been reminded how precious friendship is, as I am sure we all have.
Learning about Aelred’s relationship with God enables me to understand and appreciate my own relationship with God. He spoke of the Lord as ‘my Lord Jesus’ and his deepest friendship was inevitably with Him and was the wellspring of all his other friendships, as ours should be.
In his beautiful Pastoral Prayer, St Aelred prays for the grace to be a good Abbot and for the monks in his care. He prays that ‘we may all grow together in the friendship of Christ.’ This prayer encapsulates monastic life, including our oblate communities and internationally the Oblate Congress movement. We are all growing together in the friendship of Christ.
Neil Zoladkiewicz (Ealing Abbey)
U.K. Oblates Team Treasurer and National Coordinator for the 2022 Rome Congress