A friend of mine and I were recently discussing the difficulties of trying to explain the themes we discuss on this blog clearly and succinctly, in a way that does justice to the various aspects of the discussion. After thinking about it for a bit, I decided to try my hand at explaining what I’m about in 300 words, in a way that was personal, hopeful, honest about obstacles, and in touch with the broader Christian tradition.
(Actually, Microsoft Word informs me that this is only 297 words.)
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Reading Aelred of Rievaulx’s little treatise On Spiritual Friendship as an undergraduate was a life-changing experience for me. Aelred, a 12th-century Cistercian abbot, insists that we need to test our beliefs about friendship with Scripture. The treatise is a series of dialogues in which three monks join Aelred to examine their ideas about friendship in light of their Christian faith.
One of Aelred’s insights made a big impact on me. He points out that friendship is based on shared goals, and distinguishes between different kinds of friendship: carnal friendship, based on shared pursuit of pleasure; worldly friendship, based on mutual advantage; and spiritual friendship, grounded in shared discipleship.
The dialogues helped me to see that although Christian discipleship is costly, it need not be lonely. Our culture has become very fixated on sex, but sex and romance are not the same as love. Nor is Christian love the same as the kind of casual friendship that is common in our culture (Facebook informs me that I currently have 554 “friends”).
Aelred insists that, contrary to the transitory nature of so many contemporary friendships, a friend in Christ “loves always” (Proverbs 17:17). He and the other monks discuss how to select and cultivate lasting and Christ-centered friendships.
Growing up as a gay teenager, the only messages I heard from the church were negative. Most in our culture—including many Christians—uphold romantic and sexual love as the most important form of love. But God forbade the sexual and romantic love I desired. Was I just to be left out in the cold?
Aelred helped me to see that obedience to Christ offered more to me than just the denial of sex and romance. Christ-centered chaste friendships offered a positive and fulfilling—albeit at times challenging—path to holiness.