Cistercian Junior Formation Course, 16 – 23 July 2023

From July 15th-23rd, ten Junior monks and nuns from eight monasteries of our region gathered at Mt St Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire to receive input from Dom Elias Dietz, Abbot of Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky on the topic of St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th century English Cistercian monk and Abbot. These talks centred primarily around Aelred’s ability to be at home with suffering—to bear tension and ambivalence with patience and trust.


From Aelred’s childhood in a parish in Hexam to his education at the court of a righteous King of Scotland, he was identified as someone of capability and insight. This is evident in his writings and his seemingly effortless capacity to write in varying styles, from hagiography to sermons. We learnt that this allowed him to write about topics relevant to the ‘everyday person’ as well as mystical union, self-knowledge, and theology. These styles often collide, allowing the reader to become aware of Aelred’s sincere sense of his own powerlessness and God’s care for his people.


Aelred’s broad use of genres allows him to reconcile complexities and shows a continuous thread in his works: there are no unredeemable victims, nor faultless heroes! Simply, there is the unbounded mercy and grace of God. His conviction of God’s benevolence is a theme that arises time and again.


Aelred is often associated with the theme of friendship and fraternal love: the concepts of self-sacrificing love and equanimity were pertinent throughout the course, coupled with the idea that self-centredness makes us least like God. Thus, for Aelred, the Christological heart of community is the salvific Cross; relationships and friendships must go beyond the emotional life.


A trip to the ruins of Rievaulx, where Aelred was Abbot in the 12th century, really enlivened all we had learnt. To pray at the site where Aelred prayed, studied, and worked was a precious gift and a great privilege. We also hiked to Byland Abbey, another Cistercian ruin six miles from Rievaulx, and were taught a little of the history of both places by Lucy Beckett, a Medieval novelist and historian.


Writing of the saints of the Church of Hexam, St. Aelred of Rievaulx recalled them as “heaping new miracles on old, so as always to increase the devotion of those serving here, to assure their hope [and to] to nourish their love.” May our study of Aelred do likewise.