“In choosing and testing friends you should not grow weary of caution, for the fruit of this labor is medicine for life and the most solid foundation for immortality.”
Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship
In his great treatise Aelred names four steps of true friendship. The first two, on which he focuses much of his attention, are called choice and testing.
Choice refers to a careful discernment concerning with whom even to try to form a friendship. Implied here is that many are not capable of deeper friendship, since it requires a significant maturity in character—a maturity that is rare and thus must be sought with great care.
“A great blessing of friendship is the freedom from anxiety with which you entrust and commit yourself to a friend.” But how, Aelred continues to point out, can there be freedom from anxiety when the friend is a fickle or suspicious person? The first step in friendship then is a prudent and humble sifting and selection of where to invest ourselves.
Testing refers to how once we have decided to attempt friendship, we must continue a vigilant discernment whether and to what extent this relationship can really grow. Qualities especially to be tested for include loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience.
The point in all this is not that we be judgmental or excessively picky in our relationships. Rather the point is that we be intentional. And being intentional requires that we have a clear notion of what we are intending, and what it takes to achieve it.
At work here is a great principle recognized by all wise writers on friendship. Capacity for true friendship is directly proportional to true moral character.
Being intentional about friendships includes an amazing balance: on the one hand looking for, noticing, and encouraging what is good in people, and on the other hand practicing a sober realism about what true friendship actually requires of us, and others.
Perhaps the first thing to learn from Aelred is that true friendship comes to those who know what they are seeking. And yet even so, once we get there we will find it exceeds our greatest expectations.
St. Aelred (1109-1167) was the abbot of the English Cistercian monastery in Rievaulx. He is most known for his treatise On Spiritual Friendship.