We live with a poverty of friendship. We all relate to one another, to ourselves, and to God every day. What does it say that our word for that exchange–relationship–has come to mean primarily the romantic and sexual?
One of the unexpected graces of the monastic life has been the recognition of the tremendous gift of friendship. When I chose celibacy, I was both assenting to some deeper intuition of my identity and actively choosing to live in a way that decentralizes the sexual and romantic quest. That doesn’t mean that the fantasy of married or family life, my body’s longing to be touched, or the deeper and very real calling to partnered life have left me. On the contrary–all three (and more) are clearer when illuminated by the light of celibacy. The value and abundance of friendship in my life has been similarly revealed.
I’m sorry that it took saying no to romantic and sexual relationships to really see my friends for the vessels of grace and love and support that they are. But I’m also glad that, whatever it took, I now value them as I do. My friends are not mere alternatives to romantic partners, some second best prize because I was unlucky in love. They are deep sources of intimacy, knowing, and mutuality. We listen to one another deeply, to the silences as much as to the words. Our hearts keep counsel with one another, whether we’re together or not. I feel their love supporting me during my days, as I hope they do mine. And I have learned and am learning in the love we share with another the depths and abundance of God’s love for me.
The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist has a beautiful chapter on the graces of friendship that reminds us that friendship mirrors the soul’s relationship to Jesus:
For us no honor exists that could be greater than Jesus calling us his friends. The more we enter into the fullness of our friendship with him, the more he will move us to be friends for one another, and to cherish friendship itself as a means of grace. The forging of bonds between us that would make us ready to lay down our lives for one another is a powerful witness to the reality of our risen life in Christ. In an alienating world, where so many are frustrated and wounded in their quest for intimacy, we can bear life-giving testimony to the graces of friendship as men who know by experience its demands, its limitations and its rewards.
During my initial formation, our novice master told us that we would be lucky to have one soul friend in the community in which we live. He was pointing out the rarity of deep and abiding friendship. And while I understand the point he was making, I have found the opposite to be true. As I have deepened in my monastic life and in my love of God, friendship has flourished to overflowing in my life.
It’s true that deep soul friends are rare. And yet, I can count at least seven in my life, several of whom live close enough that I see them all the time. While most friendships may plumb the eternal depths of the soul, many, many more skim its surface and fill the soul with light. I am grateful for both kinds.
In the last seven years I’ve run up against my own reticence to love. I see the ways I’ve thrown up walls and gates and hedges. I’ve often felt I had to protect myself against unwanted intrusions into my inner life. Any monk who welcomes guests knows that sometimes they probe a bit too hard. And yet, God has continued to soften my heart and my walls. God has continued to teach me to love more broadly and more deeply. More often these days I feel a genuine affection for those I live with and for those who come to our Guesthouse.
There are just so many, many people to love in this world. What a gift God has given us in one another. We don’t have to be so alienated or frustrated in our quest for intimacy. Sometimes it’s enough to look at the life we have been given with new eyes, and to count the myriad people God has given us to love. Perhaps even to call friends.
Please know how grateful I am for your thoughtful and kind comments on my posts. I’m sorry that I don’t have time to respond to them all. I do read every one, and I feel deeply the privilege of your sharing your lives with me. May God bless you with abundant life!