Aelred of RIEVAULX. The Liturgical Sermons, Volume 3: The Durham and Lincoln Collections, Sermons 47-84, translated by Kathryn Krug, Lewis White, and the Catena Scholarium, with an Introduction by Ann W. Astell. Cistercian Fathers vol. 80. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2018. Pp. xxvi + 472. $59.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-87907-180-6. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541.


            This third volume of sermons on the major feasts of the liturgical year by the twelfth-century English Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx includes translations of material found in two manuscript collections, those of Durham (32 sermons) and of Lincoln (5 sermons), along with a single sermon on the Annunciation preserved among the writings of the slightly later precentor of the abbey, Matthew of Rievaulx. Like the two previous volumes, published in 2001 and 2016, it is based on the critical Latin edition of Gaetano Raciti, issued in three parts (1989, 2001, 2012) and consisting of a total of 182 sermons, the vast majority of them (including those in the present volume) unidentified before the mid-twentieth century. Translations of the remaining 98 sermons will appear in two or three additional volumes now in preparation.

            These sermons are erroneously identified (on the front cover only) as all coming from the extremely brief period “Advent through the Nativity” – evidently a carelessly abbreviated version of the reference on the back cover to “feasts from Advent through the Nativity of Mary” which is itself misleading: the five sermons of the small Lincoln collection (nn. 80-84) do indeed begin with an Advent sermon, followed by sermons for Christmas and the Feast of St. Benedict (March 21) and concluding with two “On the Nativity of Holy Mary” (September 8). But the Durham collection (nn. 47-78) spans the entire liturgical year, beginning with a sermon “On the Coming of the Lord: About Burdens,” concluding with one for “The First Sunday of November,” and including sermons from almost all the occasions on which a Cistercian abbot was required to preach to his community: the beginning of Advent, Christmas, the Epiphany, the Presentation, the beginning of Lent, the Feast of St. Benedict, the Annunciation, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Feast of John the Baptist, the Feast of Peter and Paul, the Assumption, the Nativity of Mary, All Saints’ Day; only sermons for Palm Sunday and the anniversary of the dedication of the monastery church are omitted. For many of these feasts (St. Benedict, Annunciation, Easter, Pentecost, Peter and Paul, Assumption, All Saints) more than one sermon is included. Sometimes these sermons include overlapping material, as with the two sermons for Easter (nn. 61, 62) or the first Durham sermon on the Annunciation (n. 57) and that preserved by Matthew of Rievaulx (n. 79) (variants of some of these sermons are also found in other manuscripts of Aelred’s sermons – the two Clairvaux collections translated in the two previous volumes of this series, and the massive Reading collection that includes virtually all the remaining sermons yet to appear in translation). Occasionally a second sermon is presented as a continuation of the first, as with the pair of sermons on All Saints (nn. 76, 77). The first of the Durham sermons (n. 47) has actually appeared in translation already, as it was reused by Aelred as a preface to his homily-treatise On the Prophetic Burdens of Isaiah (also published in the Cistercian Fathers series in 2018 – it is worth noting that the two translations are independent of one another: even though Lewis White, the translator of the Prophetic Burdens volume, also translates the last eleven of the Durham sermons in this volume [68-78] along with that from Matthew of Rievaulx, the first twenty-one, beginning with the Advent sermon on burdens, were translated by Kathryn Krug).

            Typically Aelred’s sermons are very clearly organized, frequently employing triadic patterns reflecting the Trinitarian structure of reality. For example, in Sermon 49, on Christ’s nativity, human dignity is said to consist in freedom, power and happiness; the three kinds of freedom are in choice, appetite and use of material objects; the three dimensions of power are indicated in the Creator’s command to increase, multiply, and fill the earth; happiness is found in the presence, knowledge and love of God, corresponding to the three powers of the soul: memory, understanding and will (29). Such patterns make Aelred’s lessons memorable for his listeners, but should not be taken as a simplistic, overly schematized view of the human condition. As a number of recent commentators have pointed out, Aelred is quite aware of the complexities and ambiguities of human experience in a fallen world with which he and his monastic confreres frequently have to deal, as did the biblical and historical figures he invokes. In her brief but insightful Introduction to the volume (which assumes the reader has read the lengthier prefatory material of the two previous volumes in the series), Ann Astell focuses on the “varietas” that marks many of these sermons, and refers to the “complex, architectural structure” of longest of them, Sermon 74 on the Assumption, as “following the example, as it were, of Solomon the temple-builder, in order to construct a fitting praise of Mary, the mother of the Lord, his unique temple and ark; to set her before his monks as an exalted example and intercessor” (xviii). As this example indicates, Aelred is particularly interested in the typological level of interpretation, in which Old Testament events prefigure those fulfilled in the person and redemptive work of Christ, and, frequently, in the singular role played by his mother. He also regularly emphasizes the tropological level, the pertinence of these lessons to the spiritual and moral growth of his listeners, those under his particular care as abbot of a large community.

            Perhaps the most helpful of these sermons is the first of the Lincoln series, Sermon 80 on Advent, in which the three loaves that the householder requests of his neighbor in order to feed an unexpected guest in Christ’s parable in Luke 11 are identified with the “instruction, reproof, and exhortation” that are central to good preaching (401); Aelred then goes on to consider the three advents of Christ (a famous Bernardine theme) – his first coming in the Incarnation, his final eschatological coming in glory, and the frequent visits in which he comes “to rouse, to test, and to comfort” (406). His reflections on the love of God “who bore so much for us in his first advent, who has so much concern for us in his daily visitation, and who preserves so many good things to be given to us in his third advent” (411) provide a useful summary of Aelred’s sense of his own responsibilities as preacher. In fact the Lincoln collection as a whole, due to its brevity and to the clarity and precision of its first four sermons (the fifth and final one is fragmentary), offers perhaps the best point of entry into Aelred’s work as a preacher.

            Another particularly interesting aspect of this volume is the pair of sermons preached before a non-monastic audience, at a “priests’ synod” (nn. 63, 64). Aelred’s reputation had evidently led to an invitation to serve as a sort of “retreat master” for an otherwise unidentified clergy gathering, and it is instructive to observe how Aelred reworks material previously preached to his monks (his Easter sermon [n. 62] in the first of these, a number of sermons in the second) to fit the needs of a different audience with a related but different vocation – specifically the distinct ways he employs the figures of the Good Shepherd and of Samson in sermons 62 and 63. But what is most evident in the volume as a whole is his patient care for those listening to him, his affectionate yet challenging summons to conform one’s life to the pattern of Christ as a true disciple.                                

            Relatively little attention has been paid to Aelred’s sermons, as compared to his better known treatises such as The Mirror of Charity, his dialogue On Spiritual Friendship, and the Rule for a Recluse, written for his sister and containing influential meditations (long attributed to Augustine or Anselm) on the life of Christ. This neglect has been largely due to the fact that until recently Aelred’s work in this genre has been known only fragmentarily. With the completion of the critical edition of the full corpus of the sermons, and the ongoing project of making them available to a wider audience in this series of fine translations (and through comparable efforts in other languages, especially French), this will surely change, and Aelred’s achievement as a preacher will become more widely recognized as an integral and substantial dimension of his work as a whole, as a significant articulation of the spiritual life of his own era, and as a continuing source of wisdom and insight for those seeking to know more deeply and follow more faithfully the one whom Aelred recognized as Master and Savior.