I recently taught William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A geologic epoch has passed since I first read the play, and I cannot remember my original response. What stands out now is my melancholic detachment from the kind of romance that makes the world feel all at once alive with radiance and susceptible to extinction. I never experienced that upheaval of emotion as an adolescent and only once, in a somewhat convoluted way, as an adult.
As time passes, I wonder if it is possible to reverse the years and see everything with young eyes again. When Juliet appears on the balcony of her house, Romeo does not see a teenager girl in all of her awkward glory. He sees the center of the solar system.
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she
Be not her maid, since she is envious
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
Although theoretical reflection about spiritual friendship is important, there is also an important place for talking about the practicalities of how it gets lived out day-to-day.
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know a number of young Christian professionals and grad students here in St. Louis. Although our careers spanned a range of disciplines, we had enough common interests that we could get along well and have meaningful conversations.
In some ways, the life of this group of friends is quite mundane. We’re all quite busy with our studies and work. But we still make time to go hiking on weekends, or grab dinner and a movie, or hang out at a pub, or walk around Forest Park or the Botanical Garden. Sometimes there are more of us involved in these activities, sometimes smaller subsets of the group—even just two or three—will do something.
I spoke in a chapel service at Biola University last month on the themes of gay experience, Christian faith, and spiritual friendship. Here is the video:
I gave a very similar talk at Calvin College the week before, and I’m still working on trying to refine this and figure out exactly how I want to talk about these things. If you have any feedback for me, I’m all ears!
Via Helen Rittelmeyer on Twitter, here is a lovely post by Brooke Conti on what we miss when we miss friendships from our younger days:
When I was in my twenties, I was enmeshed in my friends’ lives in ways that went beyond our constant phone calls. We actually lived with each other, even after college, and even after most of us had gotten our own apartments. If we lived in different cities, we’d visit each other for long weekends—and if we lived in the same city, we’d crash at each others’ places when it got too late to go home for the night. We’d sleep in the same room, use the same bathroom, make breakfast together. Or we’d hang out at each others’ places for hours as afternoon turned into evening, watching bad t.v., reading magazines, drinking a bottle of wine and doing our makeup as we tried to decide what to do with the night.
Now we’re busier, with work and other things. Almost all of us are partnered and half of us have kids, and spending large blocks of time together is a trickier proposition. Even when Cosimo and I stay overnight with friends, it’s usually just one night (if we’re traveling), or there’s some event we’re all going to (reunion, sporting event), so the rhythms aren’t those of real life.
But over the past year, I’ve stayed for two or three nights, just by myself, with four or five different friends (and their partners and kids, if they have ’em), some of whom I’d never before seen in pyjamas, or whose kitchens I’ve never experienced flooded with early-morning sunlight.
CBS Sunday Morning recently featured a story about ten childhood friends, now middle-aged, who meet annually to reenact a ritual from their school days: the game of tag. The game is really a pretext for these men to practice what is seldom practiced by men in our society: enduring friendship. Male friendship is difficult to practice for many reasons, including the primacy of heterosexual romance and the perceived homoeroticism of same-gender friendship.
I had told my parents I wanted to be a philosophy major. They were not amused.
My mom tried to understand. “What can you do with that?” Do meant job.
“Mom, that’s not the point. I want to pursue the truth!”
My dad interjected, “That’s great, Chris, but you have to get a job eventually. You have to support yourself.”
I was in California last week to speak at Biola University about spiritual friendship (I’ll post a link to the video when it becomes available), and I got to spend a lot of good time with a friend I’ve known since college days, named Chris. As we were talking one night, Chris pulled out a passage from a sermon by the twentieth-century German theologian Helmut Thielicke that struck me as unusually powerful:
I once knew a very old married couple who radiated a tremendous happiness. The wife especially, who was almost unable to move because of old age and illness and in whose kind old face the joys and sufferings of many years had etched a hundred runes, was filled with such gratitude for life that I was touched to the quick. Involuntarily I asked myself what could possibly be the source of this kindly old person’s radiance. Otherwise they were very common people and their room indicated only the most modest comfort. But suddenly I knew where it all came from, for I saw these two speaking to each other and their eyes hanging upon each other. All at once it became clear to me that this woman was dearly loved. And it was as if she were like a stone that has been lying in the sun for years and years, absorbing all its radiant warmth, and now was reflecting back cheerfulness and warmth and serenity.
Let me express it this way. It was not because she was this kind of a cheerful and pleasant person that she was loved by her husband all those years. It was probably the other way around. Because she was so loved, she became the person I now saw before me.
This thought continued to pursue me and the more it pursued me the more it lost all its merely edifying and sentimental features, until finally they were gone altogether. For if this is true, then I surely must come to the following conclusion. If my life partner or my friend or just people generally often seem to be so strange and I ask myself: “Have I made the right marriage, the right friendship; is this particular person really the one who is suited to me?”—then I cannot answer this question in the style of a neutral diagnosis which would list the reasons for and against. For what happens then is that the question turns back upon myself, and then it reads: “Have I perhaps bestowed too little love upon this other person, that he has become so cold and empty? Have I perhaps caused him to become what perhaps he really has become? The other person, whom God has joined to me, is never what he is apart from me. He is not only bone of my bone; he is also boredom of my boredom and lovelessness of my lovelessness.”
Andrew Sullivan points to an unenthusiastic review by Stuart Kelly of A. C. Grayling’s new book on friendship, which just arrived in my mailbox and which I’m looking forward to perusing. In particular, Sullivan highlights Kelly’s criticism that Grayling doesn’t give enough credence to the way Christianity changed the shape of the classical virtue of friendship:
Grayling being a notable anti-theist, it is no surprise that he treats Christian views of friendship as an opportunity to take a few pot-shots at some large fish in a particularly small barrel. By doing so, he misses the chance to comment on a radical difference. In Cicero, for example, there is a vexed discussion of whether or not it is possible to be a true friend to someone who holds different political or ethical beliefs. The idea of treating people as if they were friends already seems to me to be a more profound shift in the concept than Grayling admits. He may have some fun with the idea that the infinite, self-sufficient deity should require being chums with sinners, but it is at the expense of realising that in religious ethics there is the very openness that he wishes for in terms of contemporary secular friendship. He praises the notion that “children in kindergarten will be unconsciously friends with anyone at all, of any persuasion, background, colour, faith or political family”. That one might consciously choose to befriend despite difference seems to me to be a religious rather than a philosophical proposition. The “as if” (treating people as if they were friends) is a leap of faith, not a cold piece of ratiocination.
A friend sent me an email this week with the text of a homily from several years ago by Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household, on friendship between men and women. The text is from Luke 10, on Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha. After noting the usual exegesis—that the passage is about the active and contemplative lives—Fr. Cantalamessa goes in a different direction:
I think, however, that the more evident theme is that of friendship. “Jesus loved Martha, together with her sister and Lazarus,” we read in John’s Gospel (11:5).
When they bring him the news of Lazarus’ death he says to his disciples: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep but I am going to wake him up” (John11:11).
Faced with the sorrow of the two sisters he also breaks down and weeps, so much so that those who are present exclaim: “See how much he loved him!” (John 11:13).
It is wonderful and consoling to know that Jesus knew and cultivated that sentiment that is so beautiful and precious for us men—friendship…
Several comments on my recent post identified an important question worthy of greater reflection. I wrote, “It [marriage] should only be pursued when there is a strong spiritual, emotional, and physical attraction between two people.” The question: How is a man who is sexually attracted to men to qualify his physical attraction to a woman? Is it tied to spiritual and emotional attraction?
I initially offered the tripartite physical/emotional/spiritual grid for attraction in an attempt to demonstrate that any romantic relationship operates on more than just the physical or sexual level. It seems to me that the nature of attractions themselves are actually much more complicated than this, to the point where trying to make clean distinctions between these three categories may prove problematic. I personally feel this difficulty when I try and describe how my attraction to Christy moved from being primarily emotional to substantially physical, as well as the place that spiritual attraction fit into that process.