The last week three of my brothers and I have been on vacation together in Maine. This trip has been a bit of an experiment. Although the four of us live together in monastic community, there is a difference between friendship and fraternity. The two categories can, and often do, overlap, but they’re not the same thing. It has been a gift to be able to explore and deepen my relationships with these three brothers and in so doing to grow closer to God in them and in myself.
When I was a novice, my novice master told our formation group that we would be lucky to have one true friend in the monastery and luckier still if we lived in the same community with that friend. This bit of wisdom was one of many hard sayings from my novitiate, akin to “there is no such thing as unconditional love, except from God.” Or “infatuation is a form of insanity.” Like many hard sayings, this bit about friendship is true, which is why it’s so hard to hear and to incorporate.
We have such a skewed vision of friendship. I don’t know that our views are more skewed than they have been in the past. Probably they’re just differently skewed. But skewed they are. We call people we barely know our friends. And we try to rush headlong into the kind of intimacy that can only develop slowly and with great intention and attention. Relationships of any meaningful sort take time. They cannot be rushed or contrived. Like a flower, the bud must develop and, under the right conditions, slowly and gloriously unfold itself.
In morning prayer we have recently heard the stories of Jonathan and David. The queer community has seen itself in these two men, who pledge to love one another beyond all others. While I recognize the value of finding queer characters in sacred story, this kind of reading totally misses the point. We modern folks can’t seem to imagine a deep and abiding intimacy that doesn’t involve the genitalia. One can certainly have the deepest of friendships with one’s lover or spouse or partner, and, for those relationships really to flourish, they must be built on a friendship that goes far beyond sex. And sex, too, is a wonderful and important kind of intimacy. But it’s only one kind, and it isn’t a detour around the hard soul-work of coming truly to know someone who is utterly different from us.
As the psalmist says, the human heart and mind are a mystery. How true that axiom is, even of ourselves, let alone someone else. True friendship, soul friendship, involves listening deeply to another, allowing the other to exist with all her mysterious, shadowy contours, meditating on another, gazing, contemplating in the truest sense of that word. True friendship calls us to lay down our own masks and personae and to disclose who we really are. Self-disclosure of this sort is a kind of kenosis, or self-emptying. It is a laying down of our lives by laying down our defenses. As we allow another truly to gaze on us, we begin to see ourselves as we really are.
It is this kind of contemplation that Aelred of Rivaulx speaks of in his great work, Spiritual Friendship. Aelred sees friendship as the heart of the gospel and the deepest form of intimacy available to the Christian. The entire gospel message is encapsulated in the moment in John when Jesus says to his disciples “I have called you my friends.” Our task is to deepen our friendship with God through our friendships with others.
When this happens, it is no longer my friend gazing on me or me gazing on my friend. It is Christ in me gazing on Christ in my friend, Christ gazing on Christ. And in that light we come to know and love our truest face, which is Christ’s face.
I am fortunate to say that I have more than one true friend, and that I even live with some of those friends. These friends help me to learn how to lay down life, and also to receive the lives laid down for me, the Life poured out into my life with every breath I take in. These people are Christ for me. And with them, I begin to see that I, too, am Christ. I am in them and they are in me and we are in God.
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