In honor of Valentine’s day: excerpts from a final about friendship

Nerd Alert: this post has footnotes!  What follows is about three pages (gratuitously long, I know) of a five-page answer to one of my final exam questions last quarter:

“Many people have said much about love,” writes 7th century Christian monk, Maximus the Confessor, “but only in seeking it among Christ’s disciples will you find it, for only they have the true love, the teacher of love…therefore, the one who possesses love possesses God since ‘God is love.’”[1]  On this secular holiday that has commercialized and commoditized romantic attraction, much to the detriment and distress of the un-partnered, many people are saying much about love.  Love is a red, red rose, or sending (if you’re a man) or getting (if you’re a woman) a surprise bouquet of 12 of them.  Love is a box of chocolates.  Love is an expensive night out with a member of the opposite sex.  Love is, our culture would have is believe (especially on this day), expressed through money.

Many of my dear single friends generally find themselves in agony every February 14th, a feeling I remember far too well before my wedding.  But one thing my husband and I have learned in our young marriage is just how desperately we need our friends.  And in fact, when Scripture talks about the greatest love, in John 15:13,[2] it is that “one lays down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Parental care is vital – none of us would be here without it.  Marital love is a divine gift and indeed gets focused (albeit controversial) airtime in Scripture.  Even romantic attraction – with specifications, of course – finds cautious approval in Scripture.  But it is friendship, this act of laying down one’s life for one’s friends, that proves the greatest love.  And several early theologians would argue that it can only be found in Christian community…


Aelred, abbot of Riveaulx in the 12th century, echoes the words of Maximus we heard at the beginning.  “Friendship must begin in Christ, continue with Christ and be perfected by Christ.”[3]  While it is clear that the abbot assumes no true friendship can flourish outside of Christ, Aelred’s burden is for spiritual friendship.  This, he cautions, is not everyone; it is incredibly taxing to be close to and good to another person. “Let the origins of spiritual friendship have first of all the purity of intentions, the teaching of reas

on and the rein of temperance.”[4]  If we let him, Aelred could help us redefine “special someone” along more Platonic lines.

“That special someone” does not have to refer just to a romantic partner; spiritual friends, at least in Aelred’s mind, should have a very elevated place in one’s life.  In fact, Aelred quotes Cicero to claim that friendship is God’s greatest blessing.[5]  Why?  Aelred gives some beautiful reasons: “A friend’s correction does not cause pain and a friend’s praise is not considered flattery.”[6]  “A friend is medicine for life.”[7]  A friend “by dividing and sharing makes prosperity more splendid and adversity more tolerable.”[8]  This is worth quoting at length:

What an advantage it is, then, to grieve for one another, to work for one another, to                     bear one another’s burdens, when each finds it a pleasure to disregard himself for the               sake of the other, to prefer another’s will to one’s own, to meet another’s need rather               than one’s own, to oppose and expose oneself to adversity!  Meanwhile, how                                 delightful friends find their time together, the exchange of mutual interests, the                           exploration of every question, and the attainment of mutual agreement in                                       everything.[9]

… It is common for us to talk about marriage in this intimate way.  Such closeness and oneness occurs, in our cultural imagination, usually only between spouses and the termination of friendship is hardly a big event.  Aelred, however, uses language in relation to friendship that we typically only hear at a ceremony where two people exchange wedding vows:  “And what is more delightful than so to unite spirit to spirit and so to make one out of two that there is neither fear of boasting nor dread of suspicion?”[10]  It is true that not every friendship will be this close; it is only spiritual friendship Aelred speaks of in such intimate terms.  But the fact that he speaks of any kind of friendship at all in this way is shocking to a culture that has, in my opinion, largely devalued the greatest love (in my understanding of Scripture): friendship, in favor of shallow, greeting-card romance.

Friendship is God’s creation and it is through human friendship that we experience Christ in our earthly lives and God for eternity.[11]  Though Aelred is very clear that this deep unity with a friend is only for a select few in this life, eventually it will course between all, including God… Sisters and brothers, we are to love one another.  We have been called into the family of God, to serve and love God.  Maximus would exhort us that “the one who makes provision for the desires of the flesh and bears a grudge against his neighbor for transitory things – such a man serves the creature rather that the Creator.”[12]  We become what we worship.  “The one who imitates God by giving alms knows no difference between evil and good or just and unjust in regard to the needs of the body, but distributes to all without distinction according to their need, even if he prefers the virtuous person over the wicked because of his good intention.”[13]  It is not just in indiscriminate philanthropy that we reflect God, but also by loving all people.  We “love all men equality in the imitation of God.”[14]

… God commands us to love our enemies, who can sometimes be those we love dearly, in order that God might free us from hate, sadness and anger.[15]  When such darkness resides in our hearts, it snuffs out the divine love God breathes into us – both the love for God and the matchless love of God.  When we fail to love others rightly, whatever their relationship to us, we fail to love God.  Our Friend in heaven, however, does not want us to flee and hide when we fail; simply not leaving when tough times hit is perhaps the greatest gift we can give our friends.  Christ wants us, in the words of Julian of Norwich, to come running to Him when we’ve sinned as a frightened or scared child who has made themselves dirty[16] and not leave Christ alone by fleeing and hiding.  Let us cling to Christ, friends: let us love and tend to one another in sin and sorrow, in joy and righteousness, as Christ tends and loves us, the friends of God.

[1] George C. Berthold, trans. Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings., Classics of Western Spirituality (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 87.

[2] All Scripture references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.

[3] Lawrence Braceland, trans.  Aelred of Riveaulx, Spiritual Friendship (Cistercian Publications, 2010), 57.

[4] Ibid, 83.

[5] Ibid, 80.

[6] Ibid, 72.

[7] Ibid, 72.

[8] Ibid, 72.

[9] Ibid, 124.

[10] Ibid, 72.

[11] Katie (a classmate), slide 11 of her in-class presentation on Aelred of Riveaulx.

[12] Maximus Confessor, 37.

[13] Ibid, 38.

[14] Ibid, 41.

[15] Ibid, 41.

[16] A. C. Spearing, trans.  Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1999), 144.

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