Spiritual friendship has a venerable tradition among Christians. Aelred, an abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire in the twelfth century, wrote a beautiful book about friendship. For him, spiritual friendship “is cemented by similarity of life, morals, and pursuits among the just.” He defines happiness as “a pleasing and friendly sharing of all events, which occur, whether joyful or sad, of all thoughts, whether harmful or useful, of everything taught or learned.”
This type of sharing between friends is appropriate in a loving relationship. In our world we have to keep asking what will help us to be fully human and liberated from what might enslave us: materialism, lust, individualism, superficiality, alcohol, and drugs. Friends help us to re-value what is important in life.
To discover a soul friend or “another self” is one of life’s great adventures. And it is a healing experience, as seen in the story of Cleopas and his companion (Luke 24:13-35). They set out on a journey to Emmaus in a brief and desperate moment. Taking a long walk opened up new vistas. Along the way they encountered the risen Lord who enfolded them in friendship, a key point in their spiritual journey.
My closest friendship unfolded in the course of many walks, because we allowed the conversation to delve beneath the surface of our lives. We, too, discovered the risen Lord in our midst. A spiritual journey is not the means to an end. It is the way, making fruitful all our endeavors, and what a blessing to be able to declare the delights of friendship!
In Scripture, the Book of Sirach comments most often about friends:
Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are like life-saving medicine; and those who fear the Lord will find them. Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright, for as they are, so are their neighbors also. (6:14-17)
My teacher and friend, Paul Wadell, also has keen insights into the wonders of friendship, born of his own experience. How has friendship formed us? He writes, “We come to life through the attention of others. The recognition we receive from them is not only life-enhancing, it is also life-creating and that is why it is so important that the attention we give another is love.
Acts of kindness are one way of making friends and identifying those we have. Who has been unfailingly kind to us? That’s a measure of friendship that can be easily taken. Our close friends are the ones who continue to care for us, whose love is expressed in acts of kindness as a matter of course.
We should be wary of anyone who claims to be a friend if we are made to feel invisible, if our encounters are death-dealing, not life-giving, if violence or abuse enter in. Those types of relationships rob us of integrity and strip us of dignity, destroying the self-esteem which is vital if we are to relate to anyone in friendship. What is most destructive is when a powerful figure in our lives makes us feel that we do not deserve better than this form of violence in the guise of friendship or parenting.
What sometime is lacking is respect, another mark of true friendship. Waldell notes,
To respect another person is to take whatever time is necessary to see their goodness. To have respect for someone is to look far enough into the person to see their goodness, even if that goodness is more a promise than a fact. To be patient enough to find another’s goodness is to do for another what God does for us all.
What does it mean for a close friend to be “another self?” Such a friend is, according to Aelred of Rievaulx, “one to whom you need have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in your spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans!” They are kindred spirits. Such friendships require a good deal of time to develop, because it is only with intimacy that we would share our life on this level with another. Such relationships are rare, but all the more to be cherished. When two people become close friends, “the same spiritual sap circulates in them,” as Ignace Lapp says so well.
Can we have the best possible life in a world that is not “the best of all possible worlds?” The wisdom tradition suggests that we can if we are wise in testing our friendships.
When you gain friends gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily. For there are friends who are such when it suits them, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble. And there are friends who change into enemies, and tell of the quarrel to your disgrace. And there are friends who sit at your table, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble. When you are prosperous, they become your second self, and lord it over your servants, but if you are brought low, they turn against you, and hide themselves from you. (Sirach 6:7-12)
Fidelity is the hallmark of a true spiritual friendship. How good it is in the end! Do not abandon old friends, for new ones cannot equal them. A new friend is like new wine; when it has aged, you can drink it with pleasure. (Sirach 9: 10)