The prolific English Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) remains best known for his spiritual treatises. These include The Mirror of Charity, written at the behest of no less a figure than Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) when Aelred was a monk in his early 30s, and Spiritual Friendship, probably completed in the last years of Aelred's life, the most transcribed of his works in the Middle Ages and the most read today, with translations into (at least) Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Thanks to translations in volumes of the Cistercian Fathers series, Aelred's historical and hagiographical works are available in English and the already considerable interest in them will only increase with the critical editions of the Latin texts published this year by Domenico Pezzini as volume 6 of the Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis.
Aelred's sermons, of which nearly 200 have come to light, remain far less known and studied. Those translated here survive in a volume that was once in the library of Clairvaux, discovered only in the 1980s by Gaetano Raciti, who published the Latin texts as volume 2A of the Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis in 1989. The book reviewed here contains the first English translations of this set of eighteen sermons, four of them incomplete, that record Aelred's preaching to his monks during major feasts. These are not, then, the addresses to important gatherings of clergy and laity to which Aelred's biographer Walter Daniel refers, but discourses delivered as chapter sermons to his monks at Rievaulx and perhaps elsewhere. (How these sermons came to be transcribed, collected, and then copied for inclusion in a Clairvaux volume that includes a treatise on the number three by Odo of Morimond and homilies by Gilbert of Hoyland remains mysterious.) The sermons are relatively brief, on average about ten pages each, and contain frequent exhortations to Aelred's fellow monks.
Marie Anne Mayeski's translations are first-rate. Aelred is an accomplished writer whose lucid Latin lends itself to the literal approach Mayeski takes. In the case of complex words or concepts like confundare, mysterium, ordo, and sacramentum, or the difficulties of translating gendered nouns and gendered or non-gendered pronouns, Mayeski provides extremely helpful commentary in notes. She also deals deftly with oddities like Aelred's tendency to pile up conjunctions--doubtless useful for oral presentation but not good reading if rendered word for word. Marginal notations signal the presence of echoes and quotations from the Bible, other works by Aelred, and classical and medieval writers, both pagan and Christian. When Aelred uses structures that feature repetition, Mayeski does the same with as much elegance as the situation allows, giving us passages like "And see how...wisdom, strength, and sweetness mutually temper each other. Without strength, wisdom is weak. Strength without wisdom is blind....Again, without wisdom, sweetness is cunning, and sweetness without wisdom is stupid. Similarly, strength without sweetness is rash, and sweetness without strength is lax"(62-63) or "If we are sad, let us flee to her [Mary], that she herself may gladden us. If we are cast down, let us flee to her that she may glorify us. If we are troubled, let us flee to her that she may draw us up. If we are troubled, let us flee to her that she may console us"(162). The result is a highly readable and informative translation, faithful to the letter and the spirit of Aelred's prose, that underscores a highly humane and affective perspective on Christian monastic life and spirituality.
That does not mean these sermons are easy reading. They follow no set pattern, taking a variety of approaches to the discussion of the feast days on which they were delivered. Sermon 31, for Epiphany, is a straightforward discussion of grace; Sermons 34 and 38 (for the Purification and the Annunciation, respectively) do close reading and commentary of a few biblical verses. Sermons 43 and 44, for the Nativity of John the Baptist, present John's life, as a solitary and as friend of the bridegroom, Christ, as a guide for monks. Despite its length, Sermon 45, for the Assumption, works clearly topic to topic under the general heading of Mary as the epitome of holiness. That sermon also contains a rare excursus into technical theology delivered with great clarity. The bodily assumption of Mary was not settled doctrine in Aelred's time, but he argues in favor of its validity. "Today he receives her in that place and conforms the body of his most blessed mother to his own body, with its proper glory." He hastens to add, "Granted that I may not dare to affirm this--because if someone would wish to deny and vigorously to refute this we do not have the sure testimony of the Scriptures to prove it--nevertheless it is sweet to us to hold this opinion....It seems altogether credible that the one who can do all things, he who bore his own body above all the heavens, would also [raise up] the body of his most sweet mother" (149). The emphasis on sweetness and the humanity of God are utterly typical of Aelred's joyful approach to the understanding and application of Christian thought.
Other sermons are more complex, for example Sermon 39, which uses the description of Paradise in Genesis as an allegory of the Annunciation. Sometimes a sermon seems distant from the people or events of the feast at hand. Sermon 35, on Palm Sunday, explains the interdependence of wisdom, strength, and sweetness, with a few pages on the meaning of hair, and only toward the end, in a discussion of the cords the devil uses to conquer humans, is there a reference to the ass Jesus rode on his entry into Jerusalem. The relatively long (sixteen pages) second Sermon on the Purification, with its multiple thematic foci, is hard to follow.
Fortunately, we have expert guidance in the form of a lengthy introduction by Domenico Pezzini, who remarks of that second Purification sermon that "A modern reader can feel frustrated before such abundant food, presented in an apparent jumble of topics, in which it is difficult to find a general and well-organized theme" (xxvii). His excellent advice, to paraphrase, is that the reader let the words flow over him or her and absorb what can be absorbed. To aid in that process, Pezzini provides, after a few general remarks on approaching the sermons, a discussion of each sermon in order "with the purpose of highlighting the way the argument is developed, in other terms, to mark the 'movement' of the discourse" (xi). The analyses underline certain themes and approaches typical of Aelred and often, to great effect, discuss the use of certain works or rhetorical figures. The reader has the choice, then, of reading either Aelred's sermon or Pezzini's focused commentary first.
Pezzini explains that he has deliberately chosen to comment on each sermon individually because the thematic approach others have taken, highlighting for example Aelred on Christ, Mary, the saints, moral teaching, interiority, monastic community and practice, virtues, and vices, risks "losing much of the radiating charm of the sermons" (xi). This book does include a topical index, heading with a note that it is "necessarily incomplete." That last point should be underlined. "Sweet" and "Sweetness" are noted in eight sermons, but the word or concept appears in almost every one. The index is perhaps most useful as a list of important subjects and individuals and as such will be especially useful to those unfamiliar with Aelred.
This is a great time for Aelredian studies. In addition to these newly translated sermons, in 2017 there have already appeared A Companion to Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), edited by Marcia Dutton, a series of thematic essays plus a bibliography of all texts, translations, and studies published from 1996 to 2015, as well as Jean Truax's full-length study of Aelred as a figure in political and diplomatic matters entitled Aelred the Peacemaker: The Public Life of a Cistercian Abbot. Translations of more chapter sermons and Aelred's Homilies on the Prophetic Burden of Isaiah are projected for 2018. Those are only publications in English; the bibliography in other languages continues to grow as well, as is amply demonstrated in the Companion to Aelred of Rievaulx bibliography. Perhaps Aelred will never be as well-known and well-studied as his mentor Bernard of Clairvaux, but at this rate, who knows?