Aelred of Rievaulx's Rule for a Solitary

Aelred, abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx (1110-1167) composed the De Institutis Inclusarum or Rule for a Recluse, around 1158 or 1160. The Rule is addressed to his older sister, who had become a recluse and had requested a rule for her chosen life. Though at this time, the ceremony of "walling up" a recluse was taken from the Office of the Dead, reclusion was not the equivalent of later anchorite practice. Aelred's sister lived on her own property, confining herself to her own quarters, as opposed to the later anchoritic practice (demonstrated by the Ancrene Wisse) of dwelling within a small building attached to a municipal church. Nor is there any mention in Aelred of later devotional and communitarian emphasis on the Mass and Communion. Presumably, Aelred's sister depended on the occasional visits of priests for counsel and the sacraments.

The Rule falls naturally into three sections, although Aelred did not make these divisions: The Outer Person (13 "chapters"), The Inner Person (chapters 14-28) and The Threefold Meditation (chapters 29-33). Part One addresses the physical and material circumstances of the recluse's life and is of special interest here. Part Two deals with spiritual and devotional practices. Part Three is an extension of the techniques in the second part, and is referred to as the "Threefold Meditation" because it discusses past, present, and future as meditative objects. This last section had great influence on subsequent private prayer and contemplation, and may have helped preserve and popularize the first section.

The Inner Person (numbers designate "chapters")
1. Aelred begins by reviewing the motives of the "monks of old," meaning the Desert Fathers: "to avoid ruin, to escape injury, to enjoy greater freedom in expressing their ardent longing for Christ's embrace." While some lived in the desert and supported themselves "by the work of their hands." others thought it wiser to "be completely enclosed in a cell with the entrance walled up." Since the former model of self-support was endorsed by the Rule of St. Benedict, Aelred here makes a distinction between what evolved into coenobitic monastic economics and that solitary life embraced by his sister, which depends instead on subsistence, poverty, and alms. She combines the monks' avoidance of the "very freedom inherent in the solitary life and the opportunity it affords for aimless wandering" while at the same time eschewing the communal life and preserving solitude.

The issue of work is important because throughout his Rule, Aelred refers to the Rule of Benedict, adapting its content to the recluse. He is clearly aware that the full expectations of that Rule, however, cannot be expected of a recluse, who needs his/her own Rule. Thus, even in composing a Rule, Aelred gives legitimacy to reclusion and the reclusive (not yet anchoritic) life.

2. "How seldom nowadays will you find a recluse alone." Notwithstanding the tantalizing assumption that there are in fact many recluses, Aelred excoriates the terrible behavior of the typical recluse who perches at her window to soak up the scandal of a neighborhood gossip, chattering about the local priest's manner, the young girls' frivolities, the self-justified widow, the cuckolding wife. The recluse is amused and entertained, her mind and heart turning over the words and scenes hours later, straight through prayer and reflective reading. And soon the recluse invites the demons into her quarters.

This harsh passage, more didactic than presumptive, reveals again the physical context of the recluse's quarters, which are unlikely to be located on the grounds of the parish church. However, Aelred spares nothing, as will be seen.

3. The counterpart situation to chapter 2 is when the recluse deliberately pursues worldly relations from her quarters. This may be to seek out gossip, but more likely is undertaken to monitor the status of her properties. Whether the incomes for the recluse are supposedly for the support of needs, "money attracts money," says Aelred. "It accumulates and gives them [property-owning recluses] a thirst for wealth." Whatever we may think of the recluse monitoring her rents and incomes, this passage clearly demonstrates that the recluse at the time was not a dependent upon the Church, as would be the case of later anchorites. But Aelred continues. "None of this is for you," he states emphatically. "Poor with the poor, it is more fitting that you accept charity than seek elsewhere for the means of bestowing charity."

4. Aelred indicates that the recluse should live "by the labor of her hands: this is the more perfect way." If that is not possible, due to infirmity, she should provide for someone to help. But income should not attract beggars and alms seekers. "I tell you, if you have more food and more clothes than you need for yourself, you are no nun." Find some trustworthy person to distribute the excess of labor, warns Aelred, for the recluse should not be entertaining petitioners of any case, lest among them be the little old woman bearing tokens from a priest or monk, bringing flattering words and venomous intent. People will soon understand the resolve of the recluse and stop wondering.

The recluse is advised to have a mature woman ("a good woman with an established reputation for virtue") run the household, especially to screen visitors, and a young maiden for errands. Children should never have access to the recluse's cell, and the recluse should not take up teaching them, for the instruction of children requires a disposition for the outward life.

5. "I must insist on the importance of silence for recluses," Aelred begins in this section. "Therein lies great peace and abundant fruit." Aelred garners several Biblical quotations on silence, then elaborates: silence for the recluse means limiting communications to "physical needs and spiritual well-being."

The recluse sits alone, listening and speaking to Christ. She must take care to speak to anyone else but rarely, guard what is said, when and how often. Sit in silence, then, my sister, and if the needs of the body and the good of your soul compel you to speak, do so briefly with humility and restraint.

6. As to whom the recluse may speak, Aelred makes this unedifying statement: "A recluse today is quite satisfied if she preserves bodily chastity, if she is not drawn forth pregnant from her cell, if no infant betray its birth by wailing." Obviously, Aelred would have the female recluse not speak to men, except a priest, and that an "elderly man of mature character and good reputation." The exchange between them should be in the context of confession and spiritual counsel. They must not touch one another, nor refer to their faces or arms or skin in speaking.

7. Such a male visitor should be received in the presence of a third person, and none too frequently. Aelred intends that the recluse be veiled, and avoid looks. Familiarity breeds emotion and lingering memory disturbs peace of mind. Kindness will arouse fervor. Any kind of exchange of messages or gifts, the seeking of a spiritual friendship, is to be avoided. On the other hand, "ignore what is said about you," advises Aelred.

If people try to pick a quarrel with you, do not answer; if they speak disparagingly of you, do not retaliate; and if they provoke you, do not resist them. Make light of all accusations and insinuations, whether they are made publicly or in secret. ... Before all else the recluse must jealously preserve her peace of heart and tranquility.

8. Aelred identifies the church seasons and monastic hours as applied to the recluse's silence. He prescribes a regimen for the other times of the year as well.  The year is divided into three: Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross until Lent, Lent until Easter, Easter until the Exaltation. For example, from the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross until Lent, the recluse should maintain silence after Compline until dawn. Until terce, no speech. Between terce and none, speech as demanded by visitors and attendants. After none and dinner, silence. From vespers to collation, speech as demanded by attendants.

9-11. Aelred here addresses the hours of manual labor, reading, and prayer, dividing the liturgical year into two: from November first through Lent, from Easter to November first. He follows the Benedictine practice of prayers and vigils, reading, and recitation, at prescribed hours. The recluse retires before sunset and rises at midnight. Chapter 11 consists of prescriptions for Lent.

12. The topic of food is based on the Rule of Benedict's allowance of a pound of bread and a hemina (about one quarter liter) of wine, but Aelred prefers to exclude wine from the recluse's diet. "White bread and dainty foods should also be avoided lest they poison her [the recluse's] purity." The natural course is "satisfying her hunger without gratifying her appetite."

For other foods, Aelred is quite specific:

She should have one portion of either green vegetables or beans or perhaps of porridge; the addition of a little oil, butter or milk will save it from becoming monotonous. ... Supper should consist of a very small portion of fish or a milk dish, or anything of this nature that is available. She should be content with a single dish, to which fresh vegetables or fruit may be added if they are obtainable; these may also be eaten before the portions on days of one meal.

Aelred then follows with prescriptions on Lenten meals (one daily meal) and seasonal fasts (bread and water).

13. Clothing should consist of a single robe or shirt of unbleached calico or coarse linen for summer, another plus heavier garments of skin or fur for winter. The veil should be of "very ordinary black stuff: if it were colored she might appear to be making herself look attractive." Shoes, socks, and clogs are also necessary, though in kind reflecting her poverty. And here the section ends in the summary: "I have offered you a rule of life which, while tempered to the needs of the weak, allows the strong every opportunity of advancing to greater perfection."

So far, Aelred has addressed the external circumstances of the recluse. Although the original Rule has no section divisions, Aelred 's tone shifts here to what can be titled "The Inner Person," addressing a universal audience of recluses, not just his sister.

But now, whoever you may be who have given up the world to choose this life of solitude, desiring to be hidden and unseen, to be dead as it were to the world and buried with Christ in his tomb, listen to my words and understand them.

Aelred begins with the core propensity for solitude in a religiously-minded person: "Consider carefully why you should prefer solitude to the company of others." He finds this in the physical, psychological and emotional independence from others, a "free sacrifice, a spontaneous offering." This is what he calls virginity and chastity. He sees the temptations of the flesh as the major challenge for the professed person. Copious selections from biblical sources reinforce the imagery of ceaseless combat with the devil and consecration to Christ as bridegroom. Although this is the expected language of morality in this context, one might ask if it is specific to a recluse. Indeed, Aelred alludes to the challenges in the coenobitic life.

I know a monk who at the beginning of his monastic life was afraid of threats to his chastity from the promptings of nature, from the force of bad habits and from the suggestions of the wily tempter ...

Of course, the monk is Aelred himself.

Aelred sees temptations in the context of both heterosexual and homosexual relations. He speaks bluntly of "the effrontery of some who, grown old in uncleanness, will not even forego the company of undesirable persons," even when they are no longer able to fully consummate their desires. "As for you, sister, I would have you never rest secure but always be afraid." Afraid, that is, of failing, of succumbing to "those things which provide material for vice: eating, sleeping, bodily relaxation, familiarity with women and effeminate men, and sharing their company." Continues Aelred, "My purpose in making these observations has been to make you aware of the care you must take to preserve your chastity. Yet, although it is the flower and adornment of all the virtues, it withers and fades away without humility."

Given the recluse's ideal station, there should be no pride in riches or the display of attractive external objects. The recluse should not, on the pretext of devotion, pursue "the glory which expresses itself in paintings or carvings, in hangings decorated with birds or animals or flowers of one sort or another. Leave such things to people who have nothing within themselves in which to glory, and so must seek their pleasures in outward things."

Likewise the recluse's altar should be of simple white linen suggestive of the state of the soul. A crucifix, flanked by an image of the Virgin Mary and one of the apostle John (the "virgin disciple") are encouraged as prompts to virtuous thoughts. These are the only allusions to the specifics of the recluse's dwelling-place.

Aelred then addresses the issue of the active versus the contemplative life, an issue that continues to pursue Christianity. He does so using the familiar Gospel presentation of the sisters Martha and Mary in order to illustrate the fact that the recluse will naturally not be engaged in the worldly business of others but may be aware, even acutely so, of the world and the business of others. The recluse must not merely abstain from these concerns but consciously fight the temptation of jealousy and envy that may arise, that is, the possibility of "Mary" becoming bored and restless in her apparent idleness, versus "Martha," who projects purposefulness and accomplishment, especially in the realm of charity and service to others. This is a useful insight that gives a new sense to the story that is usually presented facilely as the obvious triumph of Mary in choosing the "better part." Aelred concludes:

What more can I say when those who are holy in order to love their neighbors perfectly, make it their concern to have nothing in this world, to desire nothing, and not even to possess things without attachment.

This concludes part two, the "Inner Person." What follows are brief chapters (29-33) on the threefold meditation of past, present, and future already described. Aelred completes this final section (and the Rule) with this sentiment towards his sister.

You now have what you requested: rules for bodily observances by which a recluse may govern the behavior of the outward person; directions for cleansing the inner person from vices and adorning her with virtues; a threefold meditation to enable you to stir up the love of God in yourself, feed it, and keep it burning. If anyone makes any progress as a result of reading this little book, let her make me this return for my toil and my care, to interceded for my sins with my Savior whom I await, with my Judge whom I fear.


  1. Rule for a Solitary in Aelred of Rievaulx: Treatises and Pastoral Prayers. Spenser, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1971. (Cistercian Fathers Series no. 2)