There is a wonderful sermon in John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain collection in which he reflects on the significance of the “beloved disciple.” St. John, the “private and intimate friend of Christ,” leaned on his Master’s breast at the Last Supper, was a mediator of communication between the other disciples and the Lord (“Tell us who it is of whom he speaks”), and was given responsibility for the care of Our Lady as Our Lord hung dying on the cross.
Newman considers such a particular friendship remarkable not least because it calls into question the common supposition that “Christian love [is] so diffusive as not to admit of concentration upon individuals.” We are to love all men — including strangers and even enemies — and such universally expansive benevolence might seem to rule out the possibility of directing our affections especially or in particular “towards those whom the circumstances of our past life, or some peculiarities of character, have endeared to us.”
And yet the witness of Christ himself on this matter seems to suggest otherwise, namely, that “the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.” God uses our natural and spontaneous feelings of good affection and benevolence towards some particular friends as a “preparatory exercise for the love of all men,” perfecting — by expanding — those natural affections under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Besides, particular friendships remind us that our vague professions to “love mankind” as a general feeling of benevolence are entirely vacuous without the hard and concrete practice of exercising our love and affection on those immediately around us.
Friendship has been on my mind of late, thanks in part to some wonderful talks on the topic given recently at the parish where I am a curate by the Rev. Dr. Victor Lee Austin. Newman’s sermon (and Fr. Austin’s talks) confirm my sense that Christians ought to make more of it than we often do. A Christian understanding of friendship as the richest and most intense possible form of human closeness may in fact be one of the gifts that Christianity has to offer a post-Christian world that now has a very hard time imagining forms of intimacy and affection that don’t involve genital contact.
Take Ælred of Rievaulx, that patron saint of friendship:
[I]n human affairs nothing more sacred is striven for, nothing more useful is sought after, nothing more difficult is discovered, nothing more sweet experienced, and nothing more profitable possessed. For friendship bears fruit in this life and in the next (Spiritual Friendship, 2.9).
God has so arranged human interrelations as to leave a trace in them of his own perfect and supreme unity, a unity that is manifested above all in the affection that we have for our friends, the desire for companionship that draws human beings together into common life. Nothing is sweeter than this bond of affection, nothing more pleasant than “so to unite to oneself the spirit of another and of two to form one” (2.11).
Interestingly though, while Aquinas identifies charity as nothing other than friendship (friendship with God and friendship, for God’s sake, with all who belong to him), Ælred makes a careful distinction between the two. The perfection of charity, he says, is honorably to concern ourselves with the interests even of those who are hostile to us, to love them sincerely and voluntarily, without hypocrisy or dissimulation. And yet “we do not admit these to the intimacy of our friendship.” Though we extend charity to those who are a source of burden and grief to us, we can’t properly be said to enjoy friendship with them, because “in friendship are joined honor and charm, truth and joy, sweetness and good-will, affection and action” (2.20, emphasis mine). Friendship is properly reciprocal: I not only seek the good of my friend, I also enjoy the sweetness of his good-will towards me; I not only honor my friend, I also am charmed by the return to my self of the affection and regard and delight of my friend. Friendship is therefore the perfection of charity. It is the highest of the stages that lead to “that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God,” since the true character of this perfection is nothing other than “Christ giving himself to us as our Friend for us to love, so that charm may follow upon charm, sweetness upon sweetness and affection upon affection” (2.20).
Nor does Ælred betray a kind of WASPey squeamishness about this sort of mutual affection between friends expressing itself physically. There are three kinds of kisses, he says, and each of them has a place in friendship. There is the corporeal kiss, “made by the impression of the lips,” which can be offered as a sign of reconciliation or Catholic unity, as a mark of peace, or as a symbol of love (though there are, of course, many who misuse this kiss as an instrument of their own “cruelty and lust”). There is the spiritual kiss, which is “not made by contact of the mouth but by the affection of the heart,” when two friends are so united in will that their spiritual mingling “emits a celestial savor.” And there is the intellectual kiss, which is the infusion of grace that the friends, as a result of their spiritual union, come to desire directly from the source of all sweetness, Christ himself, who embraces us inwardly and “kisses us with the kisses of his mouth” (2.24-27).
All of this suggests to me that there is a whole wonderful realm of relational intimacy that our culture misses out on by loading all of its human-closeness eggs in the basket of specifically sexual intimacy. We tend to refer to these latter relationships as “romantic,” and yet perhaps our sense of romance here is a bit impoverished. Perhaps there is room for a kind of romance with our beloved friends: doing for one another the little deeds of affection that we often associate with a lover wooing his or her espoused, things like writing letters that affirm the beloved’s virtues and beauty, attending carefully to the things that delight their soul and spontaneously and gratuitously fulfilling them, forbearing with their irritating eccentricities while dwelling on their excellences, overcoming their occasional coldness with a deeper kindness.
That we have a hard time imagining romance outside of relations of closeness that are consummated in sexual intercourse may simply be a mark of how far we have fallen from our created glory. Was not the whole created order supposed to be the scene of one great big love story, one cosmic romance?
What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you should seek him out? You have made him but little lower than the angels. You adorn him with glory and honor (Ps. 8:4-5).
Human beings were to be the “all glorious princess” arrayed in the golden gown and the embroidered apparel with which we were to “enter into the palace of the King” (Ps. 45:13-15). Our whole existence as human beings, the lords of creation, was supposed to be a constant state of ecstasy, an everlasting rapture with the beauty of our most intimate Lover, mediated to us by every corporeal thing we encounter. If we now find such intense and rapturous ecstasy narrowly restricted to the often tortuous realm of our sexuality, that may just be a good reason to think Augustine was onto something after all when he identified sex as providing the clearest indication we have of our original brokenness.
But it need not be so. Christ has come, and has breathed on us his Spirit to make us human again. We ought therefore to hope for — and to show within the fellowship of Christ’s redeemed a model of — a kind of human closeness that is deeper than and is not dependent upon the exchange of seminal fluids. If sexual intercourse finds its only proper place in the male-female pair bound together in covenant and open to procreation, then our natural desire for human closeness — even perhaps physical closeness — must properly be consummated in something other than sex. What if this is friendship?
This would make sense eschatologically. As Fr. Austin pointed out, we tend to think of the phrase “till death us do part” as meaning “forever.” But that is exactly what it does not mean. Christians don’t believe that death is the end of our story as human beings, but rather the door from our brief earthly existence into our everlasting glory in the world to come. “Till death us do part” in the marriage vow means that marriage ends at that door. But friendship doesn’t. “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Friendship realizes what is highest and truest about us: that we exist for an eternal friendship with God and with one another in God. And this friendship is nowhere more clearly manifested, at least on this side of heaven, than in the Holy Communion, where we bring our souls and bodies to feast together with our friends at a table where Christ is the host. Perhaps this is actually the highest grace, not only of the soul, but of the body as well: to share a meal with our friends. Perhaps this is where our good and natural desire for human intimacy finds its consummation.
Mac Stewart’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is a stained glass of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper in Covington Cathedral. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., and is licensed under Creative Commons.