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The mistakes you should never make in friendship, according to medieval monk

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Lucia Graziano - published on 02/07/23

St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a medieval Cistercian monk, wrote beautifully and brilliantly about friendship.

Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk who died Jan. 12, 1167, held friendship in the highest esteem. He called it “the greatest consolation of the human soul” and “an anticipation of heavenly bliss,” and he dedicated an entire treatise to it, called Spiritual Friendship.

This was a very unusual subject for the time. In the midst of the Middle Ages, it was rare for a religious author to devote so much attention to friendship.

Fortunately for us, that did not deter Aelred from illustrating the characteristics which, in his opinion, a friendship should have in order to be called truly Christian. He also warns his readers of the mistakes that must be avoided if you want to enjoy the wonders of true friendship.

Is there any hope of reconciliation after a nasty fight with a friend?

Just as it sometimes happens with great loves, friendships too can wither and die. Aelred understood this well, and some biblical passages seemed to confirm his idea.

The obvious premise is that it’s always good to do everything you possibly can to reinvigorate a friendship that has become dormant or damaged by resentment. Referring to the book of Sirach (22:21), the abbot of Rievaulx observes, “If even you have drawn your sword against a friend, do not despair: there may be a return.” 

What does it mean, concretely, to “draw your sword against a friend?”

Setting aside the unlikely situation of literal physical threats against the unfortunate person, Aelred gives this passage a broader, more ample reading: “If your friend says words that sadden you, if for a time he does not come to see you again as if he no longer loves you, if he prefers to follow his own counsel rather than heed your advice, if he does not share your views when you debate – well, this too can be considered in its own way an act of war. But in this case, all is not lost: certainly the situation is not ideal, but that’s not to say that friendship cannot be saved.”

Sirach (22:22) is firm:

If you open your mouth against your friend,

do not worry, for reconciliation is possible.

But as for reviling, arrogance, disclosure of secrets, or a treacherous blow—

in these cases any friend will take to flight.

There are wounds so deep that they prevent any reasonable hope of healing: and it is these that Aelred invites reflection on, to ensure that none of his readers may ever inflict such suffering on their closest friends.

Rule #1: Never insult a friend, especially in public

Unloading one’s anger on a friend is something that, according to the saint, “ruins the other’s reputation and extinguishes charity in him,” especially if the invective takes place publicly, in front of spectators. After all, in this scenario, there are only two possible cases: Either one person ruins the other’s reputation by making true and substantiated accusations (which it would have been better to express privately with fraternal correction), or he besmirches the other by making false, biased, or exaggerated claims about him (which, however, will tend to be taken as true by anyone witnessing the quarrel, precisely because of the bond of the two involved.  

Rule #2: Never, ever reveal a friend’s confidences

Aelred is firm on this point: “There is nothing more vile and nothing more detestable, for it leaves among friends not even an ounce of love, of grace, of suavity, and instead fills everything with bitterness, sprinkling it with the gall of resentment, hatred and sorrow.”

And, again, he quotes Sirach (27:21) to state that “to reveal the secrets of the friend is to bring to despair an unhappy soul.”

Rule #3: Always be ready to admit your mistakes

No one is perfect; even the best and brightest can fall into error, perhaps because of a rash judgment or stubborn difference of opinion. 

Indeed, it frequently happens that arrogance is the very source of many quarrels: because of this character defect, a friend can become “brash in offending and full of himself in correcting.”

It can certainly happen that tensions, disagreements and serious differences of opinion may arise between two friends; but this would not, in itself, be an insuperable obstacle if it led to calm discussion instead of open confrontation. 

Rule #4: If you must say things, say them to the person’s face

“The ultimate friendship-dissolving nastiness is denigration done in secret, that is, the quintessential treacherous blow,” Aelred writes. He calls it a real betrayal, “an aggressive and shocking act like the bite of a snake or asp”: rarely can a friendship recover after such a vile and shocking affront.

And what can you do if you have a friend who behaves this way?

The evangelical exhortation to “turn the other cheek” need not be synonymous with “endorsing such behavior in eternity.” If nothing else, there should be a limit to our tolerance, to keep our friend from being misled into the mistaken belief that certain (sinful) attitudes are actually tolerable with a snort and a shrug. At least, this is the conviction of the saint of Rievaulx, who firmly advises his readers, “You must keep away from anyone you find obstinate in these vices and you must not choose him as a friend.”

But what to do if friendship already exists at the moment these vices begin to manifest themselves?

In this case, if all attempts at reconciliation have failed and we are unable to bring our friend to recognize the error of their ways, Aelred is of the opinion that it is good to begin politely distancing ourselves. “But let us avoid invective,” he adds, “for God himself will take vengeance for the other’s faults, (…) and let us also avoid outrage.” In modern terms, some would perhaps say: let’s avoid descending to the same level.

Indeed, the saint of Rievaulx writes: “If even he whom you have loved offends you, do not cease to love him. If his behavior is such that you deny him your friendship, never deny him love.”

On the contrary, continue to behave toward him with the same charity you would expect to receive: “Take his salvation to heart as much as you can, be concerned about his reputation, and never betray the secrets he revealed to you when he was your friend, even if he betrayed yours.” This is a golden rule not to be forgotten: “A true friend loves even those who love him no longer: he gives respect to those who despise him and wishes good to those who curse him.”

There is much wisdom in these words.

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